Why we think smaller teams are better

By Andy Garner | Mar 3 2018

Over the years I’ve worked on lots of teams. Some good, and some not so. But what is it that makes a team successful?

There are the obvious things like the kind of people you have on the team. If the team members just don’t get on, if they don’t have the skills required to do the job, or they just aren’t interested in working hard then it’s clear the team will suffer.

However, simply having team chemistry and high performers doesn’t guarantee success either.

One of the best teams I ever worked on was made up of 5 developers and the development manager. We had different strengths and weaknesses and sometimes wound each other up, but I think a lot of what made us successful was simply the size of the team.

Even though we worked remotely a lot of the time we actually had really good lines of communication between us. Our morning standup was often conducted over Skype. We used messaging all day sending silly comments round while we worked. Mixed in with these comments were useful things which we all needed to know. We had a shared vision for the product we were working on, because we were all able to attend requirements sessions. We had a room where only we worked, we planned our sprints together, we had a weekly team lunch, and we complained about the same things. I’m sure to outsiders we must have seemed like an unfriendly clique, but as a team we were effective.

If there had been more of us then it would have been much harder for everyone to feel involved in the various team activities. Quiet people tend not to contribute in meetings with 10 or 15 others, but in a group of, let’s say, fewer than 6 it’s much harder to overlook them and they usually feel more able to contribute. In a small group everyone’s opinion really does matter.

Large groups often naturally split into sub-groups based on things that different people have in common, whereas in a small group even people who wouldn’t naturally go together do so. The different perspectives and occasional conflicts benefit the team as a whole as they can’t help but come to the fore.

Planning and managing the work of a small team is much easier and everyone is aware of the value they are contributing. Big teams can be chaotic, people can hide, and they can easily feel they make no difference.

Meetings in a small team are productive with everyone involved, but in a big team I’ve often seen people completely disengaged and even playing on their phones and no-one seems to notice.

There may be times when the answer to a problem is to throw lots of people at it, but in the long run, I think this is often simply a waste of time and money. Bigger teams don’t lead to improved productivity because it is hard to manage enough work for everyone to be engaged and hard to communicate. In fact these teams can actually be very off-putting for high-performers, the very people you want on your team, because they can become demotivated by not feeling they are making a difference.

From my experience the optimal team size is from 3 to 6. Everyone becomes important, communication is better, no-one can hide and the sense of shared vision and ownership leads to a unity of purpose and ultimately better work from everyone.

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