Ideal Team Size at Work

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The Ideal Team Size At Work May Be Smaller Than You Think

Close your eyes for a moment. Think back to all the teams you have been a part of throughout your life. For some, this may feel like a nightmare, harking back to the team in school that could never stay focused or the team at work that could not communicate effectively with each other, leading to late nights and missed deadlines. Unfortunately, the bad events in our life—and we’ve all been a part of some truly ill-conceived teams—weigh more heavily on us than the good events uplift us, so we are likely to more vividly call forth the emotions we felt when these star-crossed teams linked up. As you conduct this thought exercise, also recall the salient aspects of each team that you feel made one team experience better or worse than another.

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You may open your eyes now. I am no clairvoyant, but I dare say that one dimension many people thought about on the good versus bad teams they have been a part of was team size. The smallest team is naturally two; the largest could vary, depending on the size of organizations one has worked in. Some have been a part of 10-person teams. Still others may have been members of 50+ person global teams, meeting virtually once per week in chaotic conference calls or Zoom video sessions (often at inopportune times, depending on your time zone). Surely, you may remember beneficial aspects of both the smaller and larger team settings, but the question remains: Is there an ideal team size to maximize effectiveness?

Departing from the often theoretical nature of research, this practical question has been tackled on numerous occasions over the past several decades. There are naturally tradeoffs as teams become increasingly large. Many benefits accrue to teams with more people. Most obviously, as group size increases, there are more potential ideas to be considered. For some group tasks, such as trivia, the benefits of larger groups are obvious. With a team of 20, there is an increasing likelihood that someone from the group will remember which country won the first World Cup; the probability is greatly diminished in a team of three. Even on more complex tasks, more people equates with improved chances of coming up with a clever solution to a problem. (Of course, this relies on people feeling comfortable and able to share their ideas with the group, which is not often the case. It would behoove groups to actually brainstorm as individuals, jotting down all their wild and crazy ideas anonymously on paper, rather than collectively.)Today In: Careers

On the flip side, anyone that has been on a team larger than five does not need to be told of the innumerable problems with such an arrangement. There are coordination difficulties, first off. With more people, it becomes harder to bring everyone’s effort together into a final, cohesive work product (at least one that everyone agrees upon). Motivation also becomes challenging. In particular, social loafing—that is, not working as hard in a group as you would as an individual—is more likely to occur in a team of 30, whereby each group member reasonably feels his or her contribution is diluted and less impactful, than in a team of three. Last, even the lesser amount of perceived relational support from others in larger teams can detract from each member’s individual performance.

Weighing the pros and the cons, researchers have conducted numerous studies to determine the approximate team size at which the benefits of putting more heads together are maximized and the costs in terms of coordination and motivation loss are minimized. Across these studies, the exact answer varies depending on the exact task, but the modal answer is 3-5 people. In a seminal book on the topic, Ivan Steiner arrives at about 5-6 people, with the answer varying slightly depending on the exact task. More recently, the late Patrick Laughlin performed a controlled laboratory experiment with over 750 students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to arrive at a more concrete answer. In this experiment, the task being completed was a “letters-to-numbers problem,” a type of puzzle where teams must learn the predetermined mapping of 10 letters to 10 numbers as quickly as possible. Notably, this task has a dominant strategy that, once discovered, leads to the quickest unveiling of the solution. The ideal team size in this case? Just three.

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