Setting up the perfect team

This article is part of a series designed to help enterprises become more lean. We’re partnering with Lean Enterprise co-author, Barry O’Reilly, to host executive roundtable sessions in London and Berlin, as well as an event in Helsinki, ‘Lean Rocks’, all during February. Futurice and Barry will be offering bespoke training and workshops with clients in Helsinki during February and early March, if you’re interested in learning more about this please contact Timo Hyväoja.

What’s a perfect size for a team? The Beatles had their Fab Four. Walt Disney built a creative empire around nine core animators. Tolkien’s immortal fellowship had nine members, too. Kurosawa told one of the most powerful stories in movies with seven samurai. In real life, a US Army fire team consists of four soldiers, allowing for fast adaptation and effective operation.

What’s the perfect size for a team in agile projects and co-creation workshops? Depending on the problem at hand, the answer may vary greatly – as above. Managers tend to sing the praises of large teams for innovation projects, but the truth is big teams are usually a waste of everyone’s time. They not only increase the need for hand-on management, but also have an impact on human behavior: as the team grows, so does the number of free riders; the likelihood of team members helping each other out decreases as responsibility is distributed among a larger group.

Let’s look at the correlation between team size and human behavior:

  • Four: Team members are well balanced and good at achieving consensus.
  • Five: One of the team members is likely to feel like an outsider.
  • Six: It takes longer for team to reach the agreement, but they’ll get there eventually.
  • Seven: Too many random contributions floating around.
  • Eight: Team members speak freely, but no one actually listens each other.
  • Nine: Team members start to expect that someone will take the command.
  • Ten: Team has a leader who is likely to dominate the decision-making.

It’s worth noting that the complexity of the team grows much faster than the team size. In a team of 2 members, there are 2 connections, with 3 members 3. After this, things start to get complex. A team of 4 members has 6 connections and when you increase the team size to 6 members, connections among members jump to 15. In practice this means that the number of links to manage increases exponentially, which creates practical problems, since humans can handle and manage only small number of connections. So, bigger teams don’t necessarily correlate with a greater chance of success.

Towards 7±2 teams

Based in part on the phenomena explained above, Harlgard and Malone (2015) suggest that the ideal team size is somewhere between 5-9. They call these 7±2 teams. The writers highlight that a team of this size provides flexibility and exhibits real diversity without adding an additional level of management. They’ll l excel at stand-alone assignments and as a key component of a larger team. A 7±2 team is effective as it can pursue multiple tasks at one time. It can be a divided into pairs and trios and assembled quickly. Members in 7±2 teams know each other’s strengths and weakness, which allow them to build trust and find mutual purpose.

Based on existing research, there is no doubt that an effective team size can set the basis for project excellence, but that is just one side of the truth. In order to carry a project out successfully, a team needs enough time to settle in and work together. More often than not, it takes more time than one project. This is especially important in multidisciplinary teams where team members are a mix of different cultures, professions and life experiences. Familiarity creates cohesion through shared meaning and trust, as well as resilience and improvisational action.

A combination of long-term groups and ideal team size helps respond successfully to unexpected surprises during innovation projects. The same factors can help restructure project activities and routines successfully, allowing members to perform each other’s roles, if need be. This leads to successful problem solving and real-time learning.

When setting up a team for your next innovation project, don’t limit yourself to considering the competencies you need. Give team familiarity and size some thought, too, in order to anticipate potential risks brought by excessive complexity and waste of time.

Sources

Bechky, B. & Okhuysen, G. (2011). Expecting the Unexpected? How Swat officers and Film Crews Handle Surprises. Academy of Management Journal. Vol. 54, No. 2, 239-261.
Coutu, D. (2009). Why Teams Don’t Work. Harvard Business Review. May 2009
Dunbar, R. (2010). How Many Friends One Person Needs. Harvard University Press
Karlgaad, R. & Malone, M. (2015). Team Genius: The New Science of High-Performing Organizations. Harper Business.