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8 Reasons Small Teams Work Better

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Your organization is forming a new task force, cross-functional team, focus group—whatever you want to call it. And as usual, it’s time for the never-ending quest to “loop people in.” The more brains, the better, reason the powers that be. So they include as many high performers and thought leaders as possible. Soon, more volunteers trickle in because they want to be visible, to hitch their wagons to this particular star. And before you know it, the team is completely out of control.

The results aren’t pretty. It’s impossible to come to a consensus. You constantly get off track. You have to wade through piles of unhelpful input while refereeing between people with conflicting agendas. There’s entirely too much self-aggrandizing *bleep* flying around the table, while truly helpful ideas seem to have fled the building.

If you’ve been a part of one of these blundering behemoths (and most of us have), you’ll probably cheer my suggestion that, generally speaking, we all need to trim the fat. As organizations strive to stay agile and innovative, they’ve discovered that units of eight to 12 people work best as the natural size of high-performance teams. This is the magic number for leadership teams, product teams, research teams, design teams, and more.

In all industries and fields, small teams are beating out their unwieldy counterparts because they work, even at the very highest levels. For example, FedEx—a giant, incredibly complex company—has streamlined its core leadership team to CEO Fred Smith and 10 direct reports. This fosters high performance and helps the company to present a single face to customers and shareholders. CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos uses the “Two-Pizza Rule” to determine team sizes. If a group can’t be fed by two pizzas, it’s too big.

Here are eight reasons why size isn’t everything.

  1. Small teams are more entrepreneurial. Not too long ago, German software giant SAP blew up the management framework for its 20,000-person development department and replaced it with “mini-teams” of roughly 10 people. Each team had the competence and authority to make the decisions necessary to complete the entire product development cycle, including the quality of the software, the functionality, and the architectural blueprint. As a result, product development time was cut nearly in half in a three-year period. That’s the power of putting aside your managerial pride and letting small teams loose. On their own, these mini-teams became incredibly entrepreneurial and found a faster, better way than when headquarters tried to help them.
  2. They also move faster. Generally speaking, the fewer people there are in a group, the easier it is to round them all up and build consensus. That’s because the meeting doesn’t need to be postponed (twice) to accommodate members’ conflicting schedules. You don’t need to waste time bringing everyone up to speed on new developments (again). There’s no need to twiddle your thumbs as the 27th person is given a chance to weigh in. And during the conversation, there are also fewer arguments and misunderstandings. 
  3. People in small teams trust each other. When there are fewer people on a team, it’s much easier to get to know one another and become comfortable sharing ideas. Remember, ideas can’t be pulled from heads—they must be offered willingly. And, yes, those great ideas are given only to those we trust. Not surprisingly, in big groups where knowledge is treated as currency (or worse, withheld altogether), creativity and innovation don’t exactly flourish.
  4. Sometimes, they’ll even sacrifice themselves for their teammates. At a dozen or less, members are not only willing to share information, they’re far likelier to come to the aid of another team member. If the mission is important enough, they’ll even do so at their own expense. It’s no surprise that the basic unit of the U.S. military’s Special Forces is the 12-person Operational Detachment. Soldiers will jump on a grenade to protect their fellow soldiers. The principle works in business, too. As team size rises, unity becomes a daunting challenge. “No man left behind” transforms to “every man for himself.”
  5. Small teams can become more specialized. In today’s workplace, there’s still value in knowing a little bit about a lot of things, but in many cases, it’s much more important to know a lot about a very particular area. Small teams can get to this level much faster than large ones. It’s frustrating and time-consuming to bring a large group of people up to speed on a focused, maybe even technical, subject. The fewer people there are, the more streamlined the process becomes.
  6. They don’t waste your human resources. When you allow an unlimited number of people to join a team, you may think you’re being transparent, maximizing your brainpower, and generally creating your best odds for success. But chances are a lot of them are not actively contributing. They’re actually wasting time that could be much better spent on other projects. When you whittle teams down to a small core group, you help ensure that everyone else is using their time and energy more productively.
  7. Small teams foster mentoring. Even in smaller teams, it’s likely that members will have different backgrounds, experience levels, and areas of expertise. In fact, two-pizza groups are a great environment for more experienced people to teach and coach less experienced ones. A lot of the mentoring will happen organically as the team members work together and interact. This is good for the team’s productivity and for your organization overall, because you’re developing more junior people without spending any extra resources.
  8. Small teams weaken the glass ceiling. In small teams, everyone has to pull their weight, or else. There’s no room for favoritism, bureaucracy or old boys’ club politics. When everyone’s collective neck is on the line, it’s in everyone’s best interests to listen to all opinions and back the best ideas, no matter the gender, race, background or sexual orientation of the originator.

Of necessity, small teams become meritocracies. On the other hand, though, we’ve all seen large teams devolve into oligarchies, or even not-so-benevolent dictatorships. Those types of groups not only inhibit progress, they can actively poison your organization’s culture and contribute to the disengagement of valuable employees who, for whatever reason, aren’t part of the “in crowd.”

Remember, lean and hungry is always better than fat and comfortable. Yes, it may take a lot of work to switch to two-pizza teams if your organization is currently clogged by overcrowded conference tables, and you may run into a lot of resistance. But you’ll find that the effort is worth it. Small teams are the high-performance strategy of the 21st century.

Rich Karlgaard is publisher of Forbes magazine and author of The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success.

(Image via Jag_cz/Shutterstock.com)

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