As Texans, we have a natural inclination to think that big is always good. We like the fact that “things are bigger in Texas.” But sometimes bigger doesn’t always translate to better. It seems especially true when it comes to the size of teams, committees and other organized groups. In a recent article titled “Why Big Teams Suck,” Stanford Professor Bob Sutton provides an interesting look into the effectiveness of teams, and how performance problems and interpersonal friction increase “exponentially as team size increases.”
Sutton’s article overviews research that shows the best team size is four to six members for most tasks and that no work team should have more than 10 members. The reason is that larger teams place a greater “cognitive load” on individual members. As team size grows, each member spends more time on coordination with other members of the group and less time actually doing the work. And the larger the group, the greater the opportunity for miscommunication and mistakes. Also, the larger the group, the less individual accountability for its results. The smaller the team, the more difficult it is to blame someone else.
In the article, Sutton notes that during WWII the Marines changed the basic fighting unit or “fire team” from 12 to four because the larger group was more difficult to control under the stress and confusion of battle. And soldiers are more inclined to fight for their buddies with whom they have close relationships. Today’s Navy Seals have also learned that four is the optimal size for a combat team. And the last U.S. Golf Team to win the Ryder Cup in 2008 emulated the Navy Seals in organizing their team into smaller “pods” of four golfers. Please go back to that format so we can stop losing!
Successful businesses have also recognized the benefit of smaller, more focused teams. The basic work unit at McKinsey, the international consulting firm, is four – one engagement manager and three other members. At Amazon and Intuit, their rule of thumb is that development teams can’t be larger than the number of people who can be fed by two pizzas. If the tasks required are too big for a team that size, then break it up into smaller units and assign smaller teams to each one. This will prove much more successful than asking one large “super” team to try and do everything.
So the next time you are thinking about organizing a team, remember that size matters perhaps as much as the people you put on it. To maximize the chances for success, keep the group to a size that can operate effectively. If you have a team or teams now that do not seem to be working well, look at their size. If the team is larger than five or six people, especially if it is larger than 10, think about doing some reduction in size. When it comes to teams and groups, subtraction can often lead to greater success.