Optimal Team Sizes and their Impact on Communication and Performance: Insights from Knowledge@Wharton
As most workplaces today are characterized by team-based structures, the topic of optimal team size has become crucial for organizational success. While conventional wisdom suggests that bigger teams lead to better performance, recent research has shown that this may not always be the case. In fact, as the size of a team grows, so does the complexity of communication, which may lead to decreased productivity and increased social loafing.
A recent article in Knowledge@Wharton highlights the importance of team size and offers insights into the optimal numbers for different types of tasks. However, it also emphasizes that team success depends on more than just optimal size – it requires careful preparation, team building, and a shared sense of purpose and values. In this article, we delve deeper into these issues and explore the implications for organizations seeking to create effective teams.
The Magic Number: Six?
Historically, scholars and practitioners have suggested different magic numbers as the ideal team size. For instance, in his famous 1951 paper on “Social Loafing,” psychologist Maximilien Ringelmann claimed that individual effort decreases as group size increases, with gains in productivity plateauing at around eight people. However, more recent studies have suggested that this number may be lower. For instance, an article in Harvard Business Review in 2015 suggested that the ideal team size may be six, based on the idea that this number allows for diverse perspectives and facilitates efficient communication.
While the empirical evidence on this topic is mixed, the Knowledge@Wharton article suggests that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of optimal team size. Instead, it depends on the type of task that the team is performing. For instance, small teams may be effective for tasks that require creativity, innovation, and adaptability, while larger teams may be more suitable for routine tasks that require standardized procedures and structures.
The Importance of Preparation
However, as the Knowledge@Wharton article notes, the size of a team is just one of many factors that contribute to team success. Equally important is the preparation and training that teams undergo before they begin their work. This involves not only assigning team members to complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses but also building trust, rapport, and a common understanding of goals and values.
For instance, at the Wharton School of Business, MBA students are assigned to teams of five to six, but this is just the beginning of the process. The school conducts a “learning team retreat” where students spend two days doing team building and trust building exercises. They get to know each other, share core values, and develop team norms and operating principles. This approach ensures that teams have a shared sense of purpose and a commitment to working together effectively.
Recent research by Mueller suggests that such preparation can make a significant difference in team performance. In her study of 238 workers in 26 teams, ranging in size from three to 20 members, Mueller found that individuals in larger teams perform worse. However, she also found that pre-task training and preparation can mitigate the negative effects of team size on performance.
In conclusion, the optimal team size depends on the type of task and may vary depending on the organizational context. However, no matter what the size of the team, preparation, and training are crucial for team success. This involves building trust, rapport, and shared values, as well as developing norms and operating principles that guide team behavior. By taking these steps, organizations can build effective teams that achieve their goals and attain high levels of performance.