I have been reading a lot about group and organizational size lately because it is a key issue for understanding the "scaling problem" that Huggy Rao and I are currently tackling. After all, if you want to grow a large organization or network, it is crucial to understand how large "the building blocks" should be, how many people a leader can lead, and the the upper limits of organization and network size. You will likely see other posts on this issue here as I am fretting over this question a lot. But I couldn't resist a quick post drawn from J. Richard Hackman's fantastic book Leading Teams.
Richard reports an astounding solution to a disagreement between United Airlines and the pilots union when United was making its first big purchase of the 737 aircraft. Boeing designed the cockpit so that it could be flown by either a two or three person crew. Of course, United wanted two pilots because of the enormous savings in labor expenses; the union wanted three pilots because they argued that, since the planes would be flown in busy air spaces, it would be better to have a third person on board to help with demanding work and to keep an eye out for problems. Well, this kind of disagreement didn't surprise me and I am sure it doesn't surprise me. But what shocked me as that United and the union jointly sponsored an independent group to study the differences between two and three person crews during actual flight operations. The study found no consistent differences between two and three-pilot crews. As Hackman reports on page 119 of Leading Teams:
"Members of the three-person crews did leave the cockpit more frequently to visit the cabin, which may have helped strengthen the work relationship between pilots and flight attendants. But they caught no more potentially conflicting traffic called to their attention by air traffic control than did the two-person crews."
Chalk-up one for management on this one; as Richard points out, 737s are now exclusively flown by pairs of pilots, not trios. I love this story because it appears to be an actual evidence-based decision. Unfortunately, this happens far less than it should. As a process, it fascinates me because asking an objective third party to study problem when two parties have conflicting ideologies, goals, or incentives --and agreeing in advance to a decision that fits the evidence -- seems like the right way to go about things. I am not even sure if that is what happened in this case, but I fancy the notion. I know that it usually won't be feasible in real life because we human-beings aren't that cooperative and rational, but it would lead to more effective and safer organizations.
P.S. Check out Hackman's awesome recent post at HBR on group effectiveness. He has been studying this problem for over 40 years and I believe knows more about both the academic and practical challenges than anyone on the planet.