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VIEWPOINT: Size matters

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“The least productive people are usually the ones who are most in favour of holding meetings.” Thomas Sowell

As a leader, one is often asked what a good team size is and whether small teams are more productive than larger teams or vice versa. The jury is out on this question, but what research has shown so far can certainly influence leaders’ thinking on how to structure their teams.

The saying goes that many hands make light work. But is this necessarily the case? Take, for example, research done by Bradley Staats (University of North Carolina), Katherine Milkman (Wharton) and Craig Fox (UCLA). Their experiments demonstrated that two-person teams took an average of just 36 minutes to assemble 50 Lego pieces into a human figure. The same task took four-person teams 52 minutes. Moreover, people consistently underestimated the additional time needed by larger teams, with the forecasting errors growing larger as teams got bigger. The research found that increasing a team’s size can hamper coordination, diminish members’ motivation and increase conflict.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, has been quoted saying that the ideal size is “the two-pizza team” – if a team couldn’t be fed with two pizzas, it was too big. The late Harvard psychologist Richard Hackman also bluntly stated: “Big teams usually wind up just wasting everybody’s time.”

What Hackman found most significant was not the sheer number of people but the impact of the increased links between them that accumulate as the group grows. The coordination cost proliferates with every new addition, because management is a project of handling the links.

To put this into perspective, consider this:

•         A small startup of of 7 people has 21 connection points to maintain

•         A team of 12 has 66 connection points to maintain

•         A group of 60 has 1 770 connection points to maintain

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

Of course, each additional person increases total productivity of the team – but at a decreasing rate. This means that if you were the third member to join a team, you made a bigger impact on its productivity than if you were the thirtieth.

Every steep jump in links also produces a steep jump in the potential for mismanagement, misinterpretation, and miscommunication. Delays emerge from the snowballing time and effort required to keep everyone informed, coordinated, and integrated. As leaders, it’s important that we take this into consideration and enhance the capability of our teams by structuring them into sizes that help, and not hinder, their performance. ❐

Author: Brett Tromp CA(SA) is CFO of Discovery Health