The Big Advantages of a Small Team
We all know the timeless biblical tale. A young shepherd slings a rock, slays a giant, and becomes king. Nobody thought this tiny upstart could kill a gargantuan, battle-tested soldier, but despite the odds, David beat Goliath. But maybe we think about that story the wrong way. What if David didn’t kill Goliath in spite of his small size, but because of it? Comparatively smaller, he was faster, more nimble, and could move in ways the larger man couldn’t. That same lesson applies to the business world. Small teams, small companies, may seem from first impression to operate at a disadvantage to their bigger counterparts. Often just the opposite is true. Smaller groups have a number of traits working in their favor and, when they put them to use, Goliath doesn’t stand a chance.
The Ringelmann Effect
The Ringelmann Effect, a concept named after Maximilien Ringelmann, describes the inclination for individual members to become less productive as the size of a group increases. To demonstrate this effect, Ringelmann, a French professor of agricultural engineering, asked the subjects of his experiment to pull on a rope. The professor found that when an individual pulled the rope, they gave maximum effort. When more people were added to the cause, the individual effort of each participant went down. Individuals perceive larger teams to demand less individual effort, and the group cannot operate efficiently. The individual hunger displayed by the solo rope puller is best manifested on a small team in which a person must pull their own weight in a significant way.
Smaller = Faster
Smaller groups can work faster than their larger counterparts. Obviously, a team of three may not be able to do a twenty person job effectively, but a carefully optimized number of team members work more efficiently than a larger group. Smaller groups have less overhead, allowing them to direct their assets towards executing their goals. Smaller groups also benefit from visibility, not only between group members, but as a whole, as all members share a direct line of sight and communication and can streamline operations. Small teams also make it impossible for a less committed members to hide. Everyone’s work is on the table.
The theory of Bikeshedding comes from C. Northcote Parkinson’s Theory of Triviality. Parkinson theorizes that any group will spend a disproportionate time discussing trivial issues at the expense of larger, more important matters, and the larger the group the more disproportionate the time expended. To illustrate his theory, he relays the story of a committee charged with approving a nuclear reactor. The group spent much of their meeting time instead discussing construction of the staff’s bike shed. More people could have an opinion on bike shed construction as compared to a nuclear reactor, and since they could have an opinion, they were more likely to share it. The larger your team, the more often bikeshedding will occur. Smaller teams have the propensity to stick to what they know and work more efficiently.
These are merely a few examples of the many advantages small teams enjoy over their larger counterparts. Small teams can pivot, flex, react quickly, and slay the giants in their industry. In a world of startups and corporate colossi, it’s good to know that being small has a big upside.