Does size really matter?

I’ve seen lots of articles and blogs thrown around as of late discussing ideal team size.


For example I recently read something like:

“Research suggests that an optimal team size is about five to seven members, potentially even anywhere from four to nine. It is a manageable number that still allows for different minds to be gathered around a project.” 


I don’t think it’s that simple.


The ideal size could be 2, or it could be anywhere up 15 people. A lot of variables come into play with respect to “team cohesion.” Let me explain why…. But before doing so I’m going to circle back a bit and pose the question: WHY HAS A TEAM BEEN FORMED IN THE FIRST PLACE?


The answer to that one my friends is simple: Either yourself, or a member of the upper echelon has something to get done. And that something is specific operational or project task to keep the company moving along.


The thing is, we all know at an intuitive level that throwing more people at a task, will not guarantee that it will get completed on time, within a pre-defined quality framework, and more importantly, on budget.


Why not?


Well…. We have to remember one thing. Not all humans are created equal. Some of us churn through work like slugs, and conversely, some of us can pump stuff out at the speed of gazelle. (Take Frank for example, the dude is machine. He’s good for at least 80 hours of quality work in a week -- not a problem.)


So, more people isn’t the answer. But there have to other reasons, right? Yes there are. And I think that the answer can be found in the following:

  1. Some cool research from the world famous Pareto;
  2. Some odd experiments conducted by a French Engineer called Ringelmann;
  3. A TED Talk about kindergarten kids making a marshmellow tower out of spaghetti, and finally;
  4. An article from Harvard Business Review that talks about a little something called the “it” factor.


First lets take a closer look at our older buddy Pareto, an Italian Engineer and Philosopher, who ended up giving us tons of examples of the 80/20 Rule. More importantly, Pareto identified that:

  1. The distribution of wealth and resources on earth is such that a small percentage of the population actually controls the biggest chunk of the wealth;
  2. He demonstrated that about 20 percent of employees are actually responsible for 80 percent of a company’s output or work; and
  3. He also demonstrated that 20 percent of customers are responsible for 80 percent of the revenues.


Now bear in mind that these are not hard rules, and not every company will be like this and the ratio won’t be exactly 80/20. If you consider the 2nd point above more closely, chances are if you look at many key metrics in a business there is definitely a minority, which is producing the majority.


Stated otherwise, in most situations, less than ¼ of the people on a project or task are actually doing things to be “productive.” And the remaining 80+%, well, they simple aren’t.


Now let’s look at this French dude called Ringlemann, who raised an interesting point when he conducted a study where he gathered a group of people for a series of tug-of-war matches. Conventional logic would say that the group with the most people would easily win, but Ringelmann found that individuals in the larger groups exerted less effort, which ended up jeopardizing their team's victory.


Most strikingly, members of a team of eight did half as much work as they did on their own. And as it turns out the larger the team, the less pulling each individual actively chose to do. So why is this? There are few reasons for this but it is basically attributed to that fact these people were either consciously or subconsciously “social loafing” within the group and not contributing to their full potential.


Another key point is this: in order to get sh*t done you need to think less and do more. Don’t get me wrong. I am not against planning; you have to have a plan. But remember plans are awesome if you have a predictable means of achieving the desired end result.


But if you don’t know how to get where you want to go, more specifically, what steps to take to get the desired objective accomplished with a high probability of success, spending a crap ton of time planning will inevitably take you down rabbit holes AND WASTE A CRAP TON OF TIME in the process.


This idea is probably best exemplified in this TED Talk by Tom Wujec:


In here, Tom presents some surprisingly deep research into his "marshmallow problem" experiment which is simply a team-building exercise that involves dry spaghetti, one yard of tape, and a marshmallow.


The premise of the experiment is to basically see which team could build the tallest tower with these ingredients? The funny thing is, there are some surprising results that ended up surfacing. And if you watched, basically it boils down to this: the surprising group that won a lot is a bunch of kindergarten kids. And they always faired better than the majority, which incidentally comprised MBAs and other so called business pros.




Because the kids weren’t scared to try things. The MBAs and other professional spent too much time planning, and not enough time experimenting and iterating their way through to a viable solution.


The last and most important thing that significantly contributes to team output as a whole is something that Harvard Business Review (HBR) likes to call the “it” factor. We’ve all heard about the “it” factor before and is revealed in this HBR article, The New Science of Building Great Teams


The latter basically describes some of the most important intangibles that qualify a well-oiled and fully functional team. We see the "it" all the time with great sports teams wherein the vast majority work well together. And as a result the team has awesome chemistry. However, unfortunately some times people just don’t mix and the team doesn’t coalesce at all.


Some of the reasons mentioned in the article boils down to things like:

  • Communication strategies used by the group;
  • Overall team engagement and participation; and
  • The overall general outlook and views on life of the respective team members.


There you have it. My reasoning as to why I think there is no hard and fast rule for team size.


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Remember, comments are welcome, positive or negative.