There are many great examples of small, cross-functional testing teams focused on customer test outcomes, from sports teams, to special forces teams, to medical teams, to tiger teams. In fact, think of any high-performing team, and you will almost certainly be thinking of a small, autonomous, cross-functional, outcome-based group. They are effective not just because they minimize hand-offs, queues, and delays. It is not only the fast feedback that counts. There is no way to create a shared goal within a group of people who just happen to be performing the same activity, each on different projects or products. With outcome-based teams, it is possible to create a customer-focused shared goal around which the team can organize. Shared goals are highly motivating. As well, it is possible to grant greater autonomy to such groups. Granting autonomy to a group responsible for a single activity will optimize it for that activity, often to the detriment of other activities.
It is generally accepted that modern humans have been around, in their current anatomical form, for about 200,000 years. For roughly the first 95 percent of that time, we lived as hunter-gatherers in small bands of a few dozen at most. The evidence suggests that these were largely egalitarian groups with no hierarchy and effortless cooperation. Anyone who tried to become the alpha of the group would be collectively suppressed by the rest.15 These bands were highly connected, highly collaborative, and small enough that everyone could have a personal relationship with everyone else. Trust was high and people looked out for one another. While conflict did still occur, on the whole, these were highly effective societies. Over that 190,000 years, the human brain evolved perfectly for this kind of existence.
Then, initiated by the shift from foraging to agriculture around 10,000 years ago, the first farming villages began to appear. These villages consisted of a few hundred people at most. As the population expanded, filling up the land, groups came into conflict with each other. In his book Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth, Peter Turchin argues that the main driver for the advent of coordinated hierarchies and the rapid growth of societies was warfare. There is a French military saying: “God is on the side of big battalions.” Larger, more hierarchical societies were able to outcompete smaller ones in battle. This led to ever-larger and ever more centralized hierarchical societies, able to produce weapons, create strategies, and organize themselves in battle effectively. In this new landscape, these more hierarchical societies thrived at the expense of smaller, flatter ones. The first formally centralized societies, simple chiefdoms, emerged a mere 7,500 years ago in Mesopotamia and consisted of a few thousand people. This growth of societies accelerated, culminating in nation-states of hundreds of millions of people today.
Whether it’s the first small farming villages, the Catholic Church, the Roman Empire, or Max Weber’s bureaucratic management system, as soon as groups surpass a certain size, hierarchical pyramids are seen as the only viable construct. How else can organizations mobilize large numbers of people toward a common goal? Most don’t even consider that there could be another way—but, in fact, many entities have found another way. In evolutionary terms, 10,000 years is the mere blink of an eye. We are still evolutionarily primed for far smaller, far flatter, and far more cooperative societies. Hierarchical structures and functional silos tend to work against the ways in which our brains have evolved. They prevent collaboration, stifle innovation, and inhibit the ability to be responsive to change.