Many managers and leaders fall into the common productivity trap that more people mean more progress. But bigger doesn’t mean better when it comes to the organisation of teams at work, in fact it’s quite the contrary.
Individuals who form a part of a smaller team have been scientifically proven to be more personally productive than those on larger teams. While each additional person increases the total productivity of the team as a whole, research has shown that they do so at a decreasing rate; the 5th member to join a team for example, makes a bigger impact on its productivity than the fifteenth. Let’s look at some theories as to why this happens.
In one of his experiments, French professor of agricultural engineering, Maximilien Ringelmann, asked volunteers to perform the very simple task of pulling on a rope. Ringelmann (1913) found that when only one person was pulling on the rope they would give 100% of their effort, however, as more people contributed, their individual effort decreased. A similar study by Bibb Latané where participants wearing blindfolds and noise-masking headphones were asked to shout as loud as they could, produced like results; participants made less noise in groups compared to when they shouted alone. In psychology, this phenomenon of individuals exerting less effort to achieve a goal when they work in a group than when they work alone is referred to as “Social Loafing”. (Why Less is More in Teams, Mark de Rond, Aug 06 2012. The Harvard Business Review.)
“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.” Latané (c. 1979)
There is a cost to individual and team productivity as impairments to communication and coordination among team members snowball in larger team settings.
Founder and CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos famously once stood up to the suggestion that employees should communicate more with his retort “No, communication is terrible!” His equally famous two-pizza team philosophy, advocates that teams should be no larger than two pizzas can feed; communication being better between small groups. This was covered with some additional considerations in an article by Janet Choi at Bufferapp titled “The Science Behind Why Small Teams Work More Productively: Jeff Bezo’s 2 Pizza Rule“.
As Richard Hackman, Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University quite rightly pointed out – it is the number and management of links between members that gets larger teams into trouble. As a team grows, so does the number of links that need to be managed among members – at an accelerating, almost exponential rate. The cost of coordination proliferates with every additional member.
“Every steep jump in links also produces a steep jump in the potential for mismanagement, misinterpretation, and miscommunication.”
What’s more, there are only so many social relationships that one person can maintain. In his 2006 paper for Cognitive Edge David Snowden summarises his understanding of three numbers that relate to the natural limit on this number: 5 as the effect limit of the short term memory, 15 as a natural limit on deep trust and 150 (the Dunbar number) as a natural limit on acquaintances, normally interpreted as a limited number of individuals in respect of whom one can maintain some degree of knowledge. Just look at what happens as your list of Facebook friends grows!
Relational losses specifically involve perceptions about the extent to which teammates are likely to provide help, assistance and support in the face of struggle or difficulty. Psychologist and University of San Diego Professor of Management, Jennifer Mueller uncovered “relational loss” as a further element of why individuals’ efficiency decreases in larger teams. Mueller’s theory was that a deterioration in connections between team members increased with team size, resulting in weaker performance on average by individual participants.
As she studied over 200 knowledge workers, in team sizes ranging from three to nineteen, she found those in larger teams appeared to be vastly more stressed and as a result performed worse.
“[I]n these larger teams, people were lost. They didn’t know who to call for help because they didn’t know the other members well enough. Even if they did reach out, they didn’t feel the other members were as committed to helping or had the time to help. And they couldn’t tell their team leader because [it would look like] they had failed.”
There is no definite answer or formula (that I know of) to what number constitutes the optimal team size. While The U.S. Navy Seals apparently quote 4 as “the optimal size for a combat team”, another study, related to Parkinson’s Law, suggests that any team size below 20 can work, all except for a team of 8 (where people apparently find themselves in deadlock over decision making).
On the whole however, and regardless of an actual figure, science has shown us that for more effectual teamwork – we should be thinking smaller!
It looks clear that Agile approaches and frameworks catered for the key points. Implementations however vary. Even in the best of teams there is always room for further improvement. That is a core principle of both Agile and Lean. Firstly it is the Scrum Master/Team Facilitator/Team Coach’s privilege to drive this improvement. If they’d like some acceleration, an Agile Coach who supports the organisational unit can work with them and the team that they support.
A leadership team development specialist, International Coach Federation - Professional Certified Coach, with global product management experience since 2000, employing Agile & Lean since 2010, Georg Fasching helps digital creative agencies’ leadership teams delight their clients, fulfil their people, and improve their prosperity.