Why Big Teams Keep Getting Bigger

Big teams usually wind up just wasting everybody’s time

J. Richard Hackman

Traditional management structures reward success with ever more resources. That “reward” is often through giving someone a bigger team — either through additional headcount being added to your existing people, or just getting promoted and therefore having more direct reports.

In small teams – there’s literally no avoidance of scrutiny. In large teams, though, there’s plenty of opportunity to keep your head down.

The Inverse Relationship Between Resources and Productivity

The Ringelmann Effect is used to describe the inverse relationship between the number of a group of people and its productivity. Max Ringelmann was a professor of agricultural engineering who, in the late 19th Century, conducted a very simple experiment – he took piece of rope and asked two people to pull on either end: a simple tug of war.

Then he asked those same people to pull on the rope with the addition of a group. He observed that when people pulled with a group, they put in significantly less effort than when pulling on their own. So the more resources you add doesn’t always aid productivity, it can have the reverse effect.

This doesn’t always hold true as more recent research has found that individuals are less likely to decrease their individual effort within a group if they believe their individual effort is identifiable, or the group task has some personal relevance for the individual (i.e., is important), the group is more cohesive or tight-knit, and successful completion of a task depends on the effort of all group members. However , if people know their effort can drop without being easily identified and there are no negative consequences , they are likely to sit back and let others push ahead. This phenomenon is known as “Social Loafing”.

Often, people genuinely do think that if their team gets bigger, they can make things happen more quickly. Yet, Brooks’s law states: “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”.

I have literally seen Brook’s law happen in real time, most notably with large transformation programmes as more expertise is brought in and more resources are consumed until the whole endeavour nearly grinds to a halt. Everyone knows this to be true , but the conventional response is to keep adding resource, when all the evidence suggests the opposite should be happening.

One of the problems with big teams is simply communication. The coordination cost of a big team increases with every new addition, and management becomes nothing more than “link management”.

The Harvard psychologist, Prof. J. Richard Hackman,  found that as a group increases the management gets more complex. As he said “A colleague and I once did some research showing that as a team gets bigger, the number of links that need to be managed among members goes up at an accelerating, almost exponential rate. It’s managing the links between members that gets teams into trouble. My rule of thumb is no double digits.”

Having large bureaucratic teams is often thought of as being the preserve of the public sector but there’s little evidence that this is the case. Despite the online outrage I’ve detected no discernible change in service from Twitter which lost half its staff almost overnight. On that topic Jason Fried points out that Slack has 2500 people working for it and supplies a not dissimilar product to his own , 37signals, which has only 80 employees none of whom work for more than 40 hours per week.

Small = Optimised for Innovation

Research suggests that smaller teams are more optimised for innovation. Indeed, as Dashun Wang and James A. Evans write for HBR, large teams can be better at development and deployment, but small teams are better at disruption. Their analysis of over 65 million patents uncovered a nearly universal pattern: whereas large teams tended to develop and further existing ideas and designs, their smaller counterparts tended to disrupt current ways of thinking with new ideas, inventions, and opportunities. In an metaphor that any CEO should hold onto they state that “large teams, like large movie studios, are more likely to generate sequels than new narratives.”

So why don’t smaller teams proliferate? Everybody knows about Two Pizza Teams, but most teams could eat the entire contents of a Pizza Hut, with room for a Domino’s for supper.

Unpopular opinion, but I think it can come down to a desire for power and profile.

Earlier this week Adam Lent of New Local, spoke to our Board as we prepare to start a new Bromford strategy. We want to move to a position where our people are much more autonomous and there’s a more permissive culture, where people are free to innovate and respond as the community and our partners need.

As Adam said, to enable this means moving beyond a “paternalist” hierarchy where institutions exist merely to ‘do to’ people – a position that if it ever was desirable is no longer sustainable, so “we need to move to a relationship where communities… take more responsibility for what they do and we move to a much more collaborative way of working”.

Adam wasn’t talking about large teams vs small teams but he absolutely could have been. Large organisations and teams are about the concentration and accumulation of power, whereas small teams give power away. And that’s why we still have large teams.

Related: What To Do When You’ve Become a Legacy Organisation