Research: When Small Teams Are Better Than Big Ones26 February, 2019 / Articles
The “discovery of the 21st century” was awarded the Nobel prize two years after it was made. In 2015, the Laser Interferometre Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project finally detected what it was built to: gravitational waves—ripples in the fabric of space and time—caused by the collision of two black holes.
Among many things, the LIGO experiment is a testament to the power of teams in tackling the 21st century’s toughest challenges. Indeed, one of the most universal shifts in the innovation sector in recent years has been the growth of large teams in all areas of research and development, while solitary inventors, researchers, and small teams have all been on the decline.
This fundamental shift is critical for science and innovation policy, as it points to large teams as optimal engines for tomorrow’s largest advances.
But do large and small teams differ by type of innovation? That’s what we set out to test with our postdoctoral researcher Lingfei Wu. We examined millions of papers, patents, and software projects, summarizing our insights in a paper published in Nature. In short, we found that while large teams do indeed advance and develop science, small teams are critical for disrupting it—a finding with broad implications for science and innovation.
The Dominance of Large Teams
Decades of research on teams and collaborations has documented the growing dominance of larger teams over individuals and small teams in research, development, and creative tasks ranging from scientific studies to Broadway musicals.
Indeed, high-impact discoveries and inventions today rarely emerge from a solo scientist, but rather from complex networks of innovators working together in larger, more diverse, increasingly complex teams. This trend reflects an important conclusion that has become a simple prescription: when it comes to teaming, bigger is better.
Part of the reason that we need large teams is that some achievements simply aren’t feasible for smaller groups to pull off. For example, the Nobel-winning LIGO experiment involved firing two laser beams between two 4-kilometer tunnels housed in an ultrahigh vacuum, to detect a variation about a thousandth the diameter of a proton. It had by far the highest price tag of any project ever funded by the National Science Foundation. Hence, it is no surprise that the paper reporting the discovery listed more than 1,000 researchers.
Yet there are reasons to believe that larger teams are not optimized for discovery or invention. For example, large teams are more likely to have coordination and communication issues—getting everyone on board for an unconventional hypothesis or method, or changing direction to follow a new lead, will prove challenging. Large teams can also be risk-averse, as they demand an ongoing stream of success to “pay the bills.” As such, large teams—like large business organizations—tend to focus on sure bets with more established markets. By contrast, small teams—like small ventures–with more to gain and less to lose, are more likely to undertake new, untested opportunities.
This leads us to ask whether the narrative of relying only on large teams might be incomplete. Our research suggests that team size fundamentally dictates the nature of work a team is capable of producing, and smaller team size confers certain critical benefits that large teams don’t enjoy.
Large Teams Develop, Small Teams Disrupt
To examine the effects of team size, we analyzed over 65 million papers, patents, and software products that came out between 1954 and 2014.
We compared the work of large teams to that of smaller groups, with a “small” team defined as one having three or fewer members. We measured the disruptiveness of a work, using an established measure of disruption that assesses how much a given work destabilizes its field. This told us how the research eclipsed or made us rethink the prior “state of the art,” setting a valuable new direction for others to follow.
Our analyses uncovered a nearly universal pattern: whereas large teams tended to develop and further existing ideas and designs, their smaller counterparts tended to disrupt current ways of thinking with new ideas, inventions, and opportunities.
In other words, large teams excel at solving problems, but it is small teams that are more likely to come up with new problems for their more sizable counterparts to solve. Work by large teams tends to build on more recent, popular ideas, while small teams reach further into the past, finding inspiration in more obscure prior ideas and possibilities. Large teams, like large movie studios, more likely generate sequels than new narratives. We found that as team size grows from 1 to 50 members, the associated level of disruption drops precipitously.
Our results appeared remarkably robust against many tests and alternate explanations. For example, one could argue that certain types of people are more likely to work for smaller or larger teams, thus changing the outcomes associated with each. But when we compared the work of the same individual on a small team versus a large team, we found systematic differences in line with our results. We also found that team differences are not due to the different types of topics that large and small teams tend to study. This suggests it’s about team size rather than the efficient sorting of people and problems.
Support Small Teams
Our work has a few key practical implications. In general, large teams remain important on multiple levels, including for large-scale work related to patents, software development, and other areas. But supporting large teams alone could stunt the growth of innovative ideas by impeding the flourishing ecology of science and technology.
Indeed, while LIGO was a feat that no small team could have achieved, opening up a new spectrum of astronomical observation, the initial breakthrough was a careful demonstration of prior hypotheses. The consortium attributed any measured deviation from theory to faults of the instrument, making it logically impossible to violate expectations. LIGO was built to validate the highly disruptive theory of general relativity, proposed exactly 100 years before. In November 1915, when the Prussian Academy of Science first heard that “discovery of the 20th century,” it was made by a single author: Albert Einstein, the ultimate small team. The idea of gravitational waves and their measurement both moved science forward, but in very different ways.
Moreover, given the perceived benefits of large teams, there is evidence that funding agencies may prefer larger teams over smaller ones even when both are equally qualified. That can contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy that funnels support disproportionately to large teams. If we are not serious about supporting and nurturing small teams that disrupt conventional thinking by generating new directions, it’s possible that innovation, the engine of economic growth, will slow down. Without small teams, we may never discover the new problems for large teams to solve or the new products for large teams to develop.
This means that both types of teams are essential for the long-term vitality of innovation: while small teams can drive disruption and innovation, larger teams can pick up the ball and engage in greater development of a given area, as part of a virtuous cycle.
These ideas apply to business as well. In recent times, it has been easy to believe that adding another member or three to a team will always be the right choice—or at least doesn’t hurt. Our research shows that this is not true. Creating larger teams likely shifts the focus and outcome from disruptive to developmental. For the most innovative projects that seek to disrupt a field and move the needle dramatically, one perhaps should consider how to shrink the size of the team.
Jeff Bezos famously said, “If you can’t feed a team with two pizzas, it’s too large.” We need larger, more interdisciplinary business teams to solve increasingly complex global problems, but smaller ventures and the teams housed within them are critical for nimbly searching through novel possibilities and identifying next year’s transformative innovations. Thus, it is critical to ensure that different types of teams can work in concert, for greater overall performance within and across businesses and industries.
The bottom line is: bigger is not always better. Figuring out the right team size for the job may be the first question for tomorrow’s leaders to answer to unlock the potential of their enterprises.