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The Ideal Team Size

Posted on March 10th, 2016 by in Chemical R&D


I have always found the world of research and product development interesting, in part due to its counterintuitive nature.  For example, have you ever noticed that when your job description says Individual Contributor, you work on more teams than you have fingers to count them?

Teams and teamwork can defy logic, even when it’s the mechanism that organizations use to develop solutions to complex problems. The intuitive answer as to how big of a team do we need to solve this big hairy monster, is as big as management will let us get away with! But, does that stand up in theory and practice? I’m going to show that it doesn’t, at least in theory.

How to model team communication

To make sure we are on the same page, this is the theory about communication I prefer to use. Communicating takes at least two people and produces two communication pathways. The first pathway comes from the sender to the receiver, and the feedback the receiver conveys back to the sender is the second pathway. Figure 1 shows this model with each pathway designated by an arrow.

Since my background is in engineering, I build models to help understand things. Based on the simple theory above, my model designates that the communication channels of a team = n(n-1). So if you had a team of two, then 2(2-1) would equal two channels, just like the arrows in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Now back to our big hairy monster problem we need a solution to.  If we ask for a team of 16 people, a large team in my experience of innovative product development, then we have also asked for 240 communication channels, as shown in Figure 2. Of course, we don’t have to manage each conversation between each team member, do we?

Figure 2

The speed of learning

In my experience, a team moves at the speed of learning. Which means the team will churn until they have learned what is needed to take the next step. So we may not need to manage each channel, but we do need to know what the result of the learning is, and the team as a whole must avoid leaving members behind. So the team will churn while the information is spread among the members. This takes time and energy.

If we had a team of four dynamic professionals that communicate well, that is 12 channels as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3

I can manage this team, and so can you. This team will also learn faster and out maneuver the team of 16 simply because they are more nimble. Lets face it, when we are developing innovative products we are competing against the clock. The faster we can move, the more likely we will be successful. In fact, I’ve noticed that teams of three to five tend to be more successful than larger teams.  Three to five is big enough for knowledge and networking capacity.  I like to think of this capacity like processing power.  Three to five is small enough that the information can flow around quickly, like having the right amount of RAM.

Others have noticed the power of smaller teams too. Fred Brooks, the author of The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering was quoted as saying, “Nine women can’t have a baby in one month.” This is part of his law that adding more people to a late project makes it later. Though I’m not talking about a late project in this post, Mr. Brooks’ lesson follows my observations. Additional people can cause more problems then they solve.

When developing projects, people have been my biggest source of frustration and my greatest cause of serendipity. So I focus on the things I can control. When developing innovative solutions and timing is critical, I keep my teams small. When I’m in the management seat and a team asks for large resources, I ask them how they plan to manage n(n-1) communication pathways. More resources do not always mean you get to the finish line faster!

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