The Myth of Bigger Teams: Why Smaller Can Be Better
The Myth of Bigger Teams: Why Smaller Can Be Better

​​​​In an effort to counter inefficiency and increase productivity, organizations often turn to increasing team size. The logic seems sound: more people means more hands on deck to tackle tasks and solve problems. However, this approach can often lead to growing overhead and inefficiencies.

Research has shown that small teams can often be more effective than larger ones. A study published in Harvard Business Review found that while large teams do advance and develop science, small teams are critical for disrupting it. Another study published in Forbes found that there is an ideal team size at which the benefits of putting more heads together are maximized and the drawbacks minimized.

So why do smaller teams often outperform larger ones? One reason is that 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 can prove challenging with a larger group.

In contrast, smaller teams can be more nimble and adaptable. With fewer people involved, decision-making can be faster and communication more streamlined. This allows small teams to quickly pivot when needed and respond rapidly to changing circumstances.

This phenomenon is not limited to software development or business settings. In fact, examples can be found across different fields including military operations where smaller units are often able to operate with greater efficiency than larger ones.

Thus bigger isn’t always better when it comes to team size. Sometimes a highly productive team of 8 senior people can achieve better results than a mixed group of 60. Organizations would do well to consider this when trying to counter inefficiency.

Effects of team size on performance

But how exactly does this play out in practice? Let’s take a closer look at some real-world examples.

As more people are brought in to accelerate progress, it’​s not unusual for software development projects to expand in size, a phenomenon known as ballooning. However, this approach can often backfire as communication becomes more difficult and coordination issues arise.

For example, imagine a project with 60 developers working on different parts of the codebase. With so many people involved, it becomes increasingly difficult for everyone to stay on the same page. Code conflicts become more common as developers unknowingly overwrite each other’s work. Meetings become longer as everyone tries to get up-to-speed on what everyone else is doing.

Now imagine the same project with just 8 highly skilled developers working together closely. Communication is easier because there are fewer people involved. Coordination issues are less likely because everyone has a clear understanding of what their colleagues are working on.

In the military, for example, special forces units like Navy SEALs or Army Rangers typically operate in small teams of around 8-10 members. These elite soldiers are highly trained and capable of operating independently from larger units.

In contrast, traditional infantry units may have hundreds or even thousands of soldiers operating together in large formations. While these units have their own strengths such as overwhelming firepower or logistical support capabilities they may lack the agility and adaptability of smaller special forces units.

Automation as an integral part of an organization

As companies grow and evolve, it’s important to consider the impact of organizational change on teams and processes. One key area to focus on is automation. By automating tasks and processes, companies can improve efficiency and reduce the need for manual labor. Let’s take a closer look at how automation can affect teams and collaboration.

Automation can have a significant impact on organizational change. By automating tasks and processes, teams can minimize manual effort and errors, and enhance feedback loops throughout the software development lifecycle. This can lead to smaller chunks of better-quality code releases in less time. Automation can also reduce the need for basic data-input and -processing skills which will be particularly affected by automation.

The adoption of automation technologies will transform the workplace. Deliberately automating aspects of testing, code styling, integrating, and deploying should aim to reduce the time and human labor needed to develop, deploy and verify the product increment. DevOps automation is applied across the entire lifecycle, including design, development, software deployment, and release, as well as monitoring.

The primary objective of DevOps automation is to streamline the DevOps lifecycle by reducing manual workload. This automation results in several key improvements: it lessens the need for large teams, drastically reduces human errors, increases team productivity, and creates a fast-moving DevOps lifecycle.

Why avoiding larger teams may be beneficial

Some common antipatterns may arise when trying to involve more people rather than keeping a small team. As organizations grow in size they may implement measures such as code freezes or external approvals for deployment in an attempt to manage complexity. While these measures may provide some benefits they can also hinder agile development by slowing down decision-making processes.

They might as well include authoritative behaviors where senior members impose their will on others or create an environment where team members form informal silos within the team based on common interests. This all leads to a lack of trust where team members don’t trust each other’s abilities; this in turn keeps them from delegating tasks effectively. The whole environment just becomes much harder to work in.

In actuality, the bulk value or result created by a smaller team might be even bigger (let alone cheaper) than the result yielded by a larger yet rigid group. Smaller teams have fewer coordination issues, this allows them to make quicker decisions and deliver faster results.

When undergoing an agile transformation, companies should consider carefully how they scale agile development across multiple teams in order to avoid unnecessarily large teams. One way companies can achieve this is by creating cross-functional teams which helps reduce the need for scaling agile by merging various departments together.

Sometimes, however, having large teams becomes a necessity when the product is large and complex. In spite of this, there are frequent cases of software development where teams that could have stayed small if transformation had been done right. In such cases product size is still manageable by a small team, but a large group is now working on it. In such situations companies should aim at creating cross-functional teams, this reduces the need for scaling agile by merging various departments together.


To wrap up, here are a few basic areas for consideration:

  • Conduct a thorough analysis: Before scaling up, teams should conduct a thorough analysis of their current processes and workflows to identify areas that may benefit from additional resources. This can help teams avoid adding unnecessary team members and instead focus on areas where additional resources will have the greatest impact.
  • Consider alternative approaches: Teams should also consider alternative approaches to scaling such as implementing new technologies or processes that can help improve efficiency without necessarily adding more team members.
  • Automate everything possible: Teams should automate everything necessary to minimize manual effort and errors, enhance feedback loops throughout the software development lifecycle. An effective continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) pipeline integrates automation tools and workflows an organization needs to build, compile, test and release its applications. Remote development teams cannot rely on end-users to perform robust user acceptance testing. They will need to automate platform, API, functionality, performance, and security testing.
  • Develop a clear plan: Teams should develop a clear scale-up plan that should include timelines, milestones and metrics. This can help ensure that everyone is on the same page and working towards a common goal.
  • Involve all stakeholders: When considering scaling up, it#39;s essential for teams to involve all stakeholders in the decision-making process to ensure their inclusion. This includes not only team members but also customers, suppliers and other partners who may be impacted by the decision.

The key takeaway here is that organizations should carefully consider team size when trying to counter inefficiency or improve productivity. While adding more people may seem like an obvious solution it may actually lead to growing overhead and inefficiencies. While there may be instances where expansion is inevitable, disregarding the potential benefits of remaining small can prove to be expensive.


#agile; #development; #productivity; #project-management; #team-collaboration


Otakar Krus