Honey I Shrunk the Team

December 20, 2019

How can reducing the size of a team increase their productivity by up to 25%?

The last seven years have seen rise to significant challenges for virtually all organisations.  As consumer confidence has shifted up and down, so too has corporate confidence and consumer demand.  Sadly, some organisations have been forced to rationalise their resources and workforces, placing extraordinary pressure on productivity ‘post paring-down’.

A big problem in your organisation can only be solved through creativity, agility, experience and most importantly teamwork.  Traditional wisdom teaches us that the more complex the problem, the more man power we should throw at it – but a growing body of research shows that when it comes to teams, bigger is rarely ever better.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos famously said that he wanted his entire organisation – now one of the most powerful brands in the world – to be made up solely from “…two pizza teams: if a team couldn’t be fed with two pizzas, it was too big”.  Bezos gave oxygen to the growing argument that in modern business, maybe one head might just be better than two.

It’s true to say that larger groups offer a larger collective capacity in some respects; they’ll have more combined personal and professional experience, they can certainly manufacture goods in greater quantities or process raw materials at a faster rate, and frankly five brooms will sweep fifty rooms faster than one.  On more qualitative tasks though, like creating a strategy, developing a brand, or implementing a program of change, there are a lot of reasons why taking a lot less people to the job at hand might equal a lot more results.

As the size of a team increases, so too do the challenges associated with managing the individuals and respective relationships therein.  Beyond the anecdotal level, the research shows that levels of personal performance reduce and individuals become dramatically less engaged when they see themselves as just one tiny cog in a complex organisation.


Thinking Small

So how can more people really produce less results? Harvard researcher Richard Hackman found that even though more bodies undoubtedly offer a greater critical mass of resources, they need significantly more management and coordination and at some point, the size can in fact become an obstacle to progress.

More significantly though, Hackman argues that it’s not the number of people per se that create the problems, but the communication links between them that grow in multiples as the number of individuals do. The cost, time, and effort expended in the management and coordination of the larger group grows exponentially.  Take the following example

A marketing team of 7 people has 21 connection points to maintain.

A board of 12 directors has 66 connection points to maintain.

A sales team of 60 has 1,770 connection points to maintain.

A large enterprise of 6,000 has 17,997,000 connection points to maintain.

Every new person that is added to a team does indeed increase the amount of legwork possible for quantitative type production tasks, but Hackman contends that his research shows that each of the individuals contribute at a markedly and observably lower rate.  In other words, if you were the fourth person to join the team, you would likely make a bigger impact than if you were the tenth.


Crowd Costs

Hackman argued that as teams get bigger and the number of connections increase, organisations are also much more likely to see disjointed management, less collaboration, and breakdowns in communication. Agility too can be fundamentally compromised as teams get larger, with a significant slowdown in decision making, lower interpersonal familiarity, and perhaps even compromised trust.

The phenomenon is now well established in the software industry, having been identified in 1975; ’Brooks law’ which suggests “adding human-power to a late software project just makes it later.”


Use Your Loaf

Separate research seems to back up the notion that smaller teams can create bigger results.  The Latané study outlined how even the simple perception that your employees are working as part of a group can erode their motivation, effort, and productivity through a phenomenon known as social loafing.

Participants wore headphones and blindfolds.  They were instructed to shout as loud as they possibly could while in sensory deprivation, and the investigators identified that in all cases, participants made 25% less noise when they were in groups than when they participated alone.  Put simply, their performance was reduced when they felt that their effort might be lost in the crowd.  Why work hard if the individual contribution won’t be noticed, or, to put it another way, why work hard if the slack can be picked up by others?

According to Choi, while the total volume created by the group was of course much louder, it failed to increase in reasonable proportion with the growing group size. People in teams of six shouted at around 35% of their full capacity. Investigators controlled for error by having participants shout in fake groups where participants believed they were shouting in concert when they were actually shouting alone — people still didn’t perform at full capacity, producing 74% of their full potential sound.

According to Latané “when groups get larger, you experience less social pressure and feel less responsibility because your performance becomes difficult, or even impossible, to correctly assess amidst a crowd. It’s no wonder that when credit and blame get harder to assign, you start to feel disconnected from your job.”


Back at the Office

If there’s anything small organisations know how to do, it’s firefight.  Their patterns of demand shift and change at the whim of commercial and consumer confidence, and as business faces its inevitable peaks and troughs it can feel like the best solution is to throw people at it.  The evidence, though, suggests something much different.  If you’re carrying out quantitative, processes or production tasks then it’s certainly more likely that more hands will produce more results.  For the more qualitative, creative, or strategic roles though, always remember to concentrate the expertise into the smallest manageable team to achieve focus, drive, and results.


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