Why Smaller Teams Get More Done

Team size vs. team performance

Happy Saturday to every unicorn in the galaxy.

It’s been an educational couple of months.

We had to right-size our marketing team for the current market conditions.

This exercise reminded me how effective smaller groups can be.

While we lost some great people, I’ve also noticed that we’re:

  • moving faster

  • getting more done

  • meeting our goals

  • feeling invigorated

So today we’re going to look at why small teams can often outperform larger ones.

Today’s growth strategy is Right-Sizing Your Team.

Growth stage: Any

Difficulty level: Hard

"We try to create teams that are no larger than can be fed by two pizzas. We call that the two-pizza team rule."

- Jeff Bezos

Smaller Teams Can Often Get More Done

When I was in middle school the teachers often put me with the worst kids in the class for group projects. I think they hoped that my studiousness would rub off on them, or at least counterbalance their ineptitude.

It drove me nuts.

Projects took longer because we had to deal with people slacking off and hiding in closets etc. while we were pushing projects forward.

The reality is that even with high performers, dynamics become way more complex as the size of a group increases. This becomes a drag on the group’s momentum.

Everyone has an ego, ideas and a desire to feel important.

Why Smaller Teams Are Better

Smaller teams are often more effective.

My thesis is that smaller teams allow for greater fulfilment of one’s hierarchy of needs. And this in turn leads to higher engagement and therefore performance.

If you’re unfamiliar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, take a look at the image below:

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Smaller teams leave more room for people to lay the foundation of the needs pyramid.

Let me explain:

Smaller teams mean more communication between team members.

More communication increases the feeling of being connected.

Feeling more connected leads to a sense of belonging.

A sense of belonging leads to psychological safety.

Psychological safety leads to a willingness to share ideas and take risks.

The ability to share ideas and take risks leads to a sense of ownership.

A sense of ownership increases one’s investment in the outcome.

Being more invested in the outcome means you’re going to try harder.

When everyone tries harder, higher quality work gets done faster.

When Should You Reduce The Size of Your Team?

I don’t mean lay people off.

Rather, I suspect there’s a proper atomic unit for each task at hand. Some of which will require larger groups than others.

But based on the cause-effect waterfall outlined above, we can reverse engineer signs that your team is too big.

When mediocre work is getting done slower than you’d like…

It’s likely that people aren’t invested in the outcome…

And so they aren’t working as fast as they can or to the highest standard…

Because they don’t feel a sense of ownership…

So they don’t speak up at meetings and share ideas…

So meetings are quieter and feel awkward…

And the air feels heavy.

Some other obvious signs of team dysfunction:

  1. Decisions take too long

  2. People aren’t speaking up

  3. Responsibilities aren’t clear

  4. No one is being held accountable

  5. People are leaving the company

  6. Shit isn’t getting done

Google Project Oxygen

Interestingly enough, Google studied what drives team productivity and boiled it down in this helpful infographic:

You can learn more about Project Oxygen here.

Some great insights on running teams.

Potential Disadvantages of Small Teams

Contrarian take.

It’s worth considering some opposite views here (just to understand potential downside risk).

Fewer ideas: with fewer contributors you may wind up with less or worse ideas and limit the skills available within the group.

Inferior solutions: with fewer ideas in circulation you may wind up with worse solutions to complex problems.

Cliques form: if your workplace is lame you may be prone to politics and cliques. Small groups can become cliquish and off-putting for others. This will eventually hinder real achievement.

Bias to extroverts: introverts may feel more comfortable in larger groups where they don’t stand out but can make a quiet contribution.

More pressure: smaller teams mean everyone is expected to do more. The weight and expectations can be hurt performance if it makes people feel anxious and stressed out.

As usual, there’s nuance and your good judgment is required.

✨ That’s it for today!

I hope this helps you in your growth journey.


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