Many years ago, I read E.F Schumacher’s book, Small is Beautiful. Schumacher proposed the idea of smallness within bigness as a decentralized, sustainable business model. For a large organization to work, he postulated, it must behave like a related group of small organizations.

Schumacher’s central tenet serves as a great model for us in the business world, and also within the Agile and Lean communities. While many examples of this model exist today, including the incredibly well-known team-based “lattice” structure at W.L. Gore and Associates, I’m always on the lookout for novel examples, and found a great one in the Style section of The Washington Post November 30, 2012.

This model of small teams operating within a large, connected network has been applied with tremendous success by Venezuela’s El Sistema movement to provide music education to some of the country’s neediest children. From The Post:

“Programs from Seattle to South Africa match El Sistema’s dedication and purpose, but nothing matches its scale. Project 113, Buskaid and Community MusicWorks are islands of private support in a sea of public default only aggravated by mandated priorities that leave school music programs far behind.

Yet within two years of its creation in a Caracas parking garage, Abreu’s orchestra had leveraged an international competition victory in Scotland into public funding. Since then, El Sistema has grown to a network of almost 200 so-called nuclei, a staff of 1,000, an army of teachers and 300,000 participants.”

Is there a secret sauce? Perhaps. But I think, El Sistema’s network is the Schumacher model in action. From El Sistema’s website:

“Many begin attending their local El Sistema center, called a “nucleo,” as early as age 2 or 3, with the vast majority continuing well into their teens; attending up to six days a week, three to four hours a day, plus retreats and intensive workshops. Participation is free for all students. The country now has over 60 children’s orchestras, almost 200 youth orchestras, 30 professional adult orchestras and dozens of choruses.”

So, how can we apply this model the scale Agile/Lean teams? The basic Agile/Lean team model is a small, integrated team with 7+/-2 people. One way a project team can grow large while staying small, or preserve the Agile/Lean smallness within bigness, is by building the whole into the parts. That is, by preserving the essential DNA pattern of a team when adding new teams.

A small seed group breaks off from the original team to form its core. This core group, typically a product manager, lead developer, UI specialist and business analyst, ensures that the Agile/Lean team vision and culture are propagated intact to the new team.

What about larger coordination of the network? A lightweight Lean-Agile PMO can be used to coordinate and support related activities between the teams. Managers within a Lean-Agile PMO apply Lean principles at the program and portfolio level. For example, they can cap Work-in-Process (WIP) by limiting the number of projects in flight. As in El Sistema, they can enable high-level standardization, while encouraging team customization:

El Sistema has a national curriculum, including an established musical sequence. However, local leaders can customize their program. When a local experiment produces good results, it is shared and possibly adopted everywhere.”

Overall, the network of small teams is a simple yet incredibly powerful way to reduce portfolio waste and to significantly improve project throughput or time-to-market.  It avoids the conventional issues that crop up as team sizes grow, keeping teams at an optimal size for maximum team productivity and effectiveness.

Do you have other examples to share? Please chime in!