Seven Success Secrets of Small Teams

By Jon Miller Updated on June 29th, 2021

Photo credit: Anoopkn, Wikimedia Commons

American football coaching legend Vince Lombardi said:

Build for your team a sense of oneness, of dependence on another and of strength derived from unity.

United we stand. Divided we fall. Or so we are told. If we’re all too united the only reason we don’t fall may be because we are squeezed together like passengers on a Shanghai subway in rush hour who have no way to move but go with the flow (or ruthlessly elbow towards the door as it were). So why not unite after dividing into smaller groups? The thinking and behavior of large groups of people is not always humanity’s best. Small groups of dedicated individuals can accomplish wonders (including leading mobs of people astray). Why is it that small teams seem to be more effective than large ones? This is not a scientific observation, just one based on personal experience. There must be some success secrets to small teams.

1. Goals. A large group can have one large goal in common. But the larger the teams become, the more likely the members of these teams are to have individually differing goals. Most people within a society would agree that a healthy financial sector is necessary to have a strong economy, but not agree on much beyond that in terms what’s a fair salary for bankers, when banks should fail and when they should be rescued, or the degree of preventative regulation is needed. But we have no trouble with any of this when making loans with friends and family.

2. Roles. Within a team, there are only a finite number of roles. In a large team everyone can certainly contribute something, but try assigning important, unique roles to team members and you will run out fairly quickly. Leader, timekeeper, focus keeper, fun keeper, note taker, runner, doubter; team members who come away without a specific role (a responsibility) disengage fairly quickly, eroding team effectiveness. Smaller teams make it easier for everyone to be engaged and valued as an individual.

3. Rules. Some say that the fewer rules that exist, the better. There is a perception that rules equal bureaucracy. This is particularly true of creative people, or people who feel that paperwork or procedures slow them down. These people may miss the irony as they heroically and efficiently stomp out the fires caused by the lack of rules. A smaller team may be able to function well with a small handful of rules, finding a balance between constraint and freedom, while a larger group may require reams of rules to curb fringe bad behaviors, the owners of which could be better handled through self-regulation within a small team, or failing that by simply being ostracized.

4. Sport. Teams of larger than a dozen may simply be no fun. If team sports are any indication of how humans prefer to compete, achieve, entertain, and be entertained, the small team makes for better sport. The range for the top 10 sports is between five and fifteen players per team. Whether it be one of the reasons above, the difficulty of finding enough athletes within a community to form 20-man teams, the camaraderie of the small squad, or the dangers of being crushed by a 30-person celebratory pile-on after a soccer goal, we have instinctively kept sports teams small. Those who enjoy the snake boat races of Kerala may beg to differ…

5. Visibility. I once heard a story that supposedly happened at a massive organization whose name starts with a B and makes things that fly (there’s more than one!). The story was about a middle manager who never did anything but walk around with a folder in hand from meeting to meeting looking busy. He kept this up for years before being found out, taking a salary without doing any real work. I wouldn’t doubt that this happens more than we would all like to admit in very large organizations (don’t get me started about the government!). The sheer visibility of performance or non-performance within a small team makes it possible for a coach to address and correct it much more quickly.

6. Leaders. Perhaps contrary to the common concern by management that an organization lacks the depth of front-line leadership, the opposite is true. What if our organizations were in fact filled with 3 – 5 times the number of natural leaders as we believed? How happy and effective do you think these underutilized leaders would be when placed within large teams led by an overstretched leader? These dormant leaders would certainly not be making the best use of their strengths and skills. My experience in leading business transformations suggests that our organizations are filled with leaders waiting to be activated. We believe we don’t have leaders (or don’t invest in finding and developing them) so the team sizes necessarily increase, creating a self-perpetuating death spiral of teams that are too large managed by leaders who are overstretched and under-supported. Small teams are more effective because they create more teams, allowing more of the natural leaders among us to stand up and lead.

7. The number seven. Perhaps smaller teams are more effective because people can’t remember more than 7 things at a time. Do groups much larger than 7 begin to tax our ability to remember who people are, what they are doing on the team, and why they matter?

What is your experience with team size and its effect on successful teamwork?

  1. Harish

    August 12, 2010 - 5:58 pm

    Hi Jon,
    The picture you have in your post is from my native land (Kerala, India). I am pleasantly surprised to see it. 🙂

  2. Joseph

    August 14, 2010 - 12:47 pm

    My experience of teams and their size is as follows.
    A company decided to launch Lean so a team was set up to support the process.
    The team had 27 people on it that covered every support department.
    Four weeks after the launch the number of people attending the meetings had gone down to 8.
    Seven weeks after the launch the team had one person fully committed to the launch. With the close support of three other member.
    The launch was a great success and the team achieved its goals.
    The initial high number of people could not be justified except to support as and when required. If they had all kept attending meetings it would have been a gross waste of resources. The team worked best with a small active set of members 3-5 with a larger support team who could be called on as and when required.
    In modern fast moving companies every member of a team has their own important job to do in their base departments. It is right to ensure that all departments know that they must support the GOAL but not dedicate more resource than is needed to achieve that end.
    These are my experiences of Team size. All I can say is that it worked.
    Ps. I think the picture is of the river Thames. Most people will be very surprised. (Joke) no disrespect meant.

  3. Vic Srambikal

    August 15, 2010 - 9:04 am

    Long time since I paid a visit to your insightful blog. Here is my two cents on the topic : If there are too many selected by the VP/your boss/powerful guy at the top I have preferred breaking the team into focus groups with their own goals, etc supporting the ultimate goal of the project and working together. For example, we had a kaizen with 20 people, we broke up in three teams of 6 each depending upon our profound knowledge and expertise. Another kaizen failed miserably since it had all 20-25 people working on the same thing. Past experience, Denial, egos multiply exponentially with addition of team members, this hampers the signal to noise ratio if you will.
    7 is my magic number !
    Excellent post! Kerala is where I have my roots as well, this one’s close to the heart!
    Venkatesh “Vic” Srambikal

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.