Want results? Think Small

I recently dialed into a conference call in which we were trying to solve a business problem. It was supposed to be a 30-minute call with four other people.   After I entered my conference access code, the system announced me as the 14th caller to join the conference.   At first, I thought I misdialed and joined the wrong call, but I later realized that a number of people have forwarded the meeting invite to others who they thought could help.

So here we are, with 16 people from across the world on the phone. After the obligatory introductions and resolving issues with someone’s line making a terrible background noise, we spend the next 20-odd minutes going around in circles, didn’t even scratch the surface of solving our problem and scheduled another call (this time an hour-long), the following week.

While most people believe that “the more brainpower in the room, the better”, there is much scientific proof emerging that the exact opposite is true.   In fact, throwing more people at a problem is one of the most common productivity traps that we fall into. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos coined a “two pizza rule”. If a team couldn’t be fed with two pizzas, it was too big. People in smaller teams are far more productive. As group size rises, all sorts of issues spring up and individual performance levels diminish. So while larger teams may be getting more done altogether, it’s happening at a rate lower than the sum of individual efforts.

Janet Choi, Chief Creative Officer at idonethis, wrote an excellent blog about this very topic, breaking down the scientific rationale that paints a compelling picture of why keeping teams small is almost always more productive:

Big Teams have Too Many Links to Manage

The larger the team, the more links between people get accumulated and the costs of coordination sky rocket. This formula shows how the links grow at an accelerating rate:

FormulaPut this more simply:

  • A small startup of of 7 people has 21 connection points to maintain
  • A group of 12 has 66 connection points to maintain
  • A group of 60 has 1770 connection points to maintain.
  • A large enterprise of 6000 has 107,997,000 connection points to maintain.

Imagine the complexity of managing even 20 connections. With every person joining the team, the potential for mismanagement, misinterpretation, and miscommunication increases. Delays emerge from the snowballing time and effort required to keep everyone informed, coordinated, and integrated.

Active Disengagement

When we feel that our voices are not heard, we actively choose to disengage – it’s human nature. When we add people and connections, it is easy for individuals to get lost in the matrix. When people feel they don’t matter, they actively disengage.   This compounds the issue further as you now have a person that still needs to be managed and is expected to deliver, but not contributing at their full potential, or in many cases, will act to demotivate others around them.

Relational Loss

Psychologist and University of San Diego Professor of Management, Jennifer Mueller uncovered “relational loss” as the third element of why individuals’ efficiency decreases in larger teams.

Relational loss is when you feel as if you are receiving less and less support, as teams get larger. Mueller’s theory is that as team members increased with team size, individual performance on average deteriorates.

Mueller gathered surveys from 238 team members, which showed that the stress caused by a lack of connection to other members of the group was a key driver behind the lower performance of individuals on the larger teams.

The price of relational loss is paid for with feelings of isolation and chronic stress, which harms cognitive ability and causes poorer performance. In larger teams, people were lost. They didn’t know who to call for help because they didn’t know the other members well enough. Even if they did reach out, they didn’t feel the other members were as committed to helping or had the time to help.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, keeping teams small and coherent it is not as hard as we may think. It just takes some time and effort along the way:

Choose Quality over Quantity

Much like my example in the beginning of this article, we must first shrug off the notion that more is better. In my experience, you can effectively manage the size of the team if you spend the time up-front to carefully identify the capabilities (as opposed to names of people) you need for the project and then identify the best people who can fill those capabilities. Having three people on your team who better fit the capabilities or can stretch into them is going to be more productive then having a team of ten and will keep the team challenged and motivated. As you need subject-matter experts, pull them in, but they don’t necessarily have to play a full-time role or be on the core team.

Look for Diverse, but Complimentary Skills and Strengths

Some of my most memorable projects included people with diverse skills who consistently complemented each other and helped everyone raise the bar. Depending on your tasks, having people with skills and strengths that compliment each other, reduces conflict, competition and motivates the team.   For example, if you have someone who is strong in ideation or problem solving, you can complement that person with someone who is strong in execution or operations.   A coherent team will build on each other’s strengths and cover for any weaknesses.

Create a Team Culture of Feedback and Questioning

Ensuring everyone has a voice starts with creating an environment where it safe to question anything.   Questions raised need to be carefully considered and may trigger ongoing discussion and possibly action. Praising and rewarding questioning and giving people the time and space to question things will not only increase the probability of success, but also reduce relational losses by motivating people.

Don’t Forget to Have Fun

Work doesn’t have to be all about work all the time.   Part of your team’s ability to work together is going to hinge on people building personal relationships that go way beyond the task or project.   Bringing in some fun and team-building along is a great way for people to forge better relationships, develop empathy for each-other and work better together.   Don’t leave a team outing to the post-project celebration, do it right from the start to encourage people to form personal relationships.

To summarize in two words –  think smaller.  The time you invest outside the four-walls of the meeting room in identifying capabilities, understanding your team-mates and having fun will pay off by building an engaging environment and opening up channels for success.


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