A Tale of Two Forwards

How do teams work? What are some common characteristics of good teams?

Society, the old thinking goes, is a social contract. We give up a part of our own liberty in order to enjoy a yet greater liberty. Society can provide freedom from hunger, freedom from fear, even freedom from want.[1] Humans can accomplish profoundly more in groups than they can individually. The effect of cooperation on productivity is not additive, nor is it even multiplicative. The effect is exponential. And it seems that the more people that are brought into society, the effect only grows greater.

The example par excellence is the personal computer industry. This was perhaps the first large-scale industry to grow up, from nearly the very beginning, as a truly global endeavor. And the effects have been remarkable. It has wrought changes to this world scarcely imaginable at its takeoff in the 1980s. A social and economic revolution as significant as its industrial predecessor, but doused in the accelerant of global cooperation, it took a scant twenty-five years.

And yet, for all the magnitude of globalization, for all the people skittering across common economic webs, the most basic unit of human organization remains as essential as ever. As organizations grow ever more gargantuan, they do not transform from small groups to large groups. Not truly. Take a small manufacturer of industrial parts, say 30 employees. Suppose it doubles in size. It does not change from 5 groups of 6 people to 5 groups of 12 people. The company grows into 10 groups of 6 people.

Both research and experience confirm that when teams reach a certain size, adding more people to the mix does not increase the effectiveness of the team, it diminishes it. Both Amazon and Apple, two companies that know a thing a two about using teams to get things done, follow the "two pizza rule." Teams need to be no larger than two pizzas can feed.[2]

The research of Evan Wittenberg, director of the Wharton Graduate Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania, focuses around optimal team size, and why people in large teams do worse than people in small teams. His findings support the two pizza rule. He summarizes his research on team size as ""not conclusive" but optimal teams "tend to fall in the five to 12 range, though some say five to nine is best, and the number six has come up a few times."[3]

While at their outset teams are created at any number of different sizes, over time, their development will either shrink toward the ideal size.No matter how large the key organizations of society might grow, nor how small they might shrink in the aftermath of some massive calamity, the team will remain as the indispensible and indivisible atom of the social economic structure.[4]

Now is an especially auspicious time to study the characteristics of great teams. For 2011 marked the creation of the greatest team ever seen in Portland, perhaps in all of the Pacific Northwest. I of course refer to the Portland Timbers.

2011 was the beginning of Major League Soccer (MLS) in Portland. The Portland Timbers were granted an MLS franchise, and moved up to the highest levels of American play. Though the Timbers have been around for decades, the team this year was essentially a new one, for very few former Timbers players were retained in the promotion to MLS.

The definition of a work team is "a small number of people with complementary skills who hold themselves mutually accountable for pursuing a common purpose, achieving performance goals, and improving interdependent work processes."[5] With almost no modification, this definition could as well apply to a sports team.

Ultimately, a team's long-term success or failure is not determined by the skills of its individual members. It is determined by the capacity of the team to develop the talents of both its individual members, while directing those talents toward a common purpose. A team that takes a diverse group of highly skilled individuals and inspires them to tackle a single goal is impressive. But it is not the highest example of teamwork. The ultimate team also develops individual skills as needed in order to accomplish an ever-evolving set of goals.

The Portland Timbers has focused on recruiting and developing young talent, young players who have not yet reached their full potential but who over time promise to become some of the finest players in the league. This is a dangerous path for a soccer club to take, for the threat of injury or recruitment can undo years of careful investment in an instant. However, like many risky investments, the potential for reward is likewise great.

In Darlington Nagbe, at least one of the Timbers risky investments seems to have paid off. Fresh from college, 2011 was Darlington Nagbe's first year in the MLS. With the Timbers, Nagbe has flowered into one of the leading forwards of the league. One of his goals was a thing of beauty, an incredibly difficult, flawlessly-executed shot from long range. It arced over the heads of a half-dozen defenders before dropping down just enough to slip under the crossbar and into the net. For that goal, he won the MLS strike of the season award.[6]

With the recruitment of Nagbe, the Timbers management proved itself very adept at one of the most important parts of building a team: selecting people who are suited to a particular team.

On the flip side, the dangers of selecting an individual not suited to a team also manifested in the inaugural season, with the recruitment of another promising forward very unlike Nagbe. Nagbe, a young, inexperienced, and energetic player, shared with his other young teammates what can only be described as hustle. They were driven, pursuing every oppertunity, and occasionally, as with Nagbe's Strike of the Season, transforming an awkward pass into a perfect shot.

This drive was integral to the success of the team. The team's playstyle was incredibly organic. The season was one long, evolving experiment. Players were constantly rotated in and out, and new configurations, switching up which players held which positions, happened constantly. The rookie Nagbe thrived in this organic setting.

Kenny Cooper, Portland's most-experienced, most-highly-paid, and supposed-to-be-star forward, could not cope with the Timber's organic playstle. He was experienced in the more mechanistic structure of many MLS and European teams. He has had a distinguished career as a leading scorer for FC Dallas and a solid stint in the much more competitive European League with 1860 Munich. An injury has hampered his performance over the last few years, but when he was hired, all agreed he had recovered well on the physical front.

Ultimately, it was not any physical ailment that created the poor fit between Cooper and the Portland Timbers. Cooper is simply used to the more rigid, traditional structure of European and established American clubs. In those teams, player roles and team culture have developed over decades of practice and play. The tasks for each player are clearly defined, and deviation from those roles brings failure more often than success.

This is the key to understanding Cooper's seemingly bizarre behavior of standing by the goal and waiting for the ball to be delivered to him. In Europe and Dallas, this behavior was exactly what had made Cooper a successful part of those teams. Those teams had elaborate, highly practiced plans designed to get the ball to a specific point, at which time it was simply the job of the tall, powerfully-built Cooper to be there and power the ball through the last few meters.

The more organic playstyle of the Timbers, along with the the youth and inexperience of the other players, made it very rare for the Timbers to be able to get the ball to one static point where Cooper was waiting. Thus, for many matches, Cooper was simply irrelevant, oftentimes failing to touch the ball much over the course of the entire 90 minutes of play.

In January 2012, Cooper was traded to the New York Red Bulls. This trade was a net win for both teams. Cooper is more likely to thrive with the more traditional, mechanical team. And the Timbers got rid of their most expensive and underperforming player. What the Timbers asked for instead of Cooper is instructive: allocation money and a first round draft pick.[7] With these two things, the Timbers can recruit the cream of the crop who are leaving college and entering the MLS this year. Such recruits, like Nagbe, are much more likely to be compatible with the young, organic team.

Society enables humans to accomplish orders of magnitude more than they could individually. The funamental unit of this cooperative production is the team. Yet for all the power of teams, the process of creating and developing a team fraught with peril. One of the key mistakes a manager can make is to assign individuals to a team they are not compatible with. This case study of Darlingtion Nagbe and Kenny Cooper in the inaugural MLS season illustrates how powerful adding the right person to the mix can be, and, also, how ineffective adding the wrong person to the mix can be.


[1] John Locke, Second Treatise on Government

[2] Pete Abilla, Software Development: Agile, Team Size and Dynamics

[3] Knowledge@Wharton, Is Your Team Too Big? Too Small? What's the Right Number?

[4] Atom in the modern understanding as a very small unit of matter, not in the ancient understanding as the smallest unit of matter. Atoms regularly give up and take on new individual electrons, yet the atom itself remains and generally retains its particular properties.

[5] Chuck Williams, MGMT, 3rd ed., page 172.

[6] G. Arnold. "Timbers' Darlington Nagbe wins MLS Goal of the Year", The Oregonian.

[7] Jeff Mussall, Timbers Trade Kenny Cooper to New York: Fan Reaction. Yahoo News.