(N.B. This post is part of an occasional series I'm doing, drawing from some of the thinking that's going into the book I'm writing - any feedback is appreciated)
'From the Founding Fathers in politics to the Royal Society in science to Fairchild Semiconductor’s “traitorous eight” in business, small groups of people bound together by a sense of mission have changed the world for the better.' Peter Thiel
There is a story (seemingly from a former executive) that whilst at an offsite retreat where Amazon’s senior staff had gathered, some of those staff suggested that employees of the company needed to start communicating more with each other. Jeff Bezos apparently stood up and declared to all in the room: "No, communication is terrible!". Bezos was referring to the potential for over-burdensome communication to slow everything down. Yet many managers at many large organisations still loudly advocate the need for more communication. It’s the kind of rallying cry that very few others will disagree with. The kind that feels like it is just what is needed to solve a broad range of internal issues that need attention.
I've written before about the power of small teams, and am fascinated by their potential for bringing greater agility and speed of delivery to organisations, and also for generating significant change. But this is not just conjecture. There is plenty of research into how small teams can do this, some of which is summarised by Janet Choi in this excellent blog post on the subject. Janet draws on the work of J. Richard Hackman who was Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University to make the point that the issue with larger teams isn’t necessarily the size of the team itself, but the number of links between people.
As group size increases, the number of unique links between people also increases, but exponentially. So whilst a small team of 6 creates 15 links between everyone, a larger team of 12 will generate 66 links, and a team of 50 has no less than 1225 links to manage. This exponential increase means that coordination and communication costs are soon growing at the expense of productivity. Hackman, writing in The Psychology of Leadership, explains that:
“The larger a group, the more process problems members encounter in carrying out their collective work …. Worse, the vulnerability of a group to such difficulties increases sharply as size increases.”
Leaders, says Hackman, may often create oversized teams in the faulty assumption that ‘more is better’ for team effectiveness, or due to emotional considerations such as sharing responsibility and spreading accountability across larger numbers of people, or for political reasons such as ensuring that all relevant stakeholders are represented:
“For these reasons, individuals from various constituencies may be appointed to a team one by one, or even two by two, creating a large politically correct team - but a team that can find itself incapable of generating an outcome that meets even minimum standards of acceptability, let alone one that shows signs of originality."
Janet also mentions research conducted by Bradley Staats, Katherine Milkman, and Craig Fox (The Team Scaling Fallacy: Underestimating The Declining Efficiency of Larger Teams) showing that larger team sizes can lead to overconfidence and an under-estimation of time needed to complete tasks. One experiment conducted by the researchers set different groups the task of building the same Lego figure. In spite of the fact that the larger teams were almost twice as optimistic about how long they’d take to complete the task, four person teams took 52 minutes whilst two-person teams took only 36 minutes.
It’s tempting in digital transformation to think that since the outcome is so important and speed (in delivery of transformation or digital development) is often such a factor, more people will lead to a greater chance of success. But we underestimate the increasing burden of communication at our own cost. Small, nimble teams can achieve amazing things. So rather than throw numbers at a problem, ask yourself this - what's the smallest number of people you can put together to achieve a result? It's likely to be less than you think.