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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Bucket Brigade : The whole is greater than the sum

Photo Credits: Rupert Ganzer

Arranging your teams will improve your effectiveness by magnitudes.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but its through how you arrange everyone. One of the lessons I've learned reading a book called, "Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How they Shape Our Lives". This comes from a short story in the book about the bucket brigade and their work towards extinguishing a house fire and I thought I'd share it.



Oh snap ! Your house is on fire but luckily you live near the ocean cause. Quickly grabbing a bucket you rush back and forth to filling it up to splash water on your burning home. Unfortunately  on your own it will be impossible to extinguish the fire. Luckily you have a hundred friends who are keen to help you so they grab a bucket and start helping you. However, once they get started they are inefficient because all of them are wasting time running back and forth to the ocean. Through operating independently your house will burn down.

However, through forming a line and creating a bucket brigade your house will be saved. This is because you wont have to waste time running back and forth to the ocean but it also means people who aren't super strong enough to carry gallons of water back and forth can contribute too. This hundred person line might be able to do the work of two hundred people working independently and its all about how you arrange it.

You can improve the effectiveness of human beings by as much as an order of magnitude simply by arranging them differently


For extinguishing this fire a simple line works very well. The best arrangement though is based on what your objective is. With the work that we have to do these days being more service oriented it can be hard to know how to configure a team to accomplish an intangible goal. Thinking about it made me wonder what are the standard ways you can structure a team ? Here are the four that I see and hear about most often:

Functional structure

People are organized by what they do and their function within the company. If your in sales your in the sales department, if you are in marketing you are in the marketing department, operational people are in the operations department. The classic and the most commonly heard organization structure that I hear about.

Divisional structure

Divisions can be focused on product or region and contain its own sales, operations and marketing department. For example divisions focused on geographical basis such as the US division and Asia division or product basis such as SUV division. 


This is where you bring together people with different competencies and achieve greater results through synergy. As organizations become more lean and tend towards a flatter organization structure creating teams has become more common.

Virtual team

This is by far the most convenient and my frequently used organization structure. Leading volunteer teams where your working students and individuals where other higher priorities, scheduling in person team meetings becomes very challenging. Online meeting technology has been great for creating more opportunities to have meetings along and a more mentoring/coaching leadership style has helped me be successful.   


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By Stevie Vu

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