There’s a reason startups are driving so much innovation today. In many cases, it’s a simple matter of size. Smaller teams of smart, qualified, motivated people are often able to collaborate and communicate better than bigger ones. That’s hardly a new idea in the business world, but how bigger organizations can go about creating small-team dynamics is still an open question. So here’s a look at what we know about small teams’ effectiveness in the tech sector and how to put them to good use.
According to Gallup’s 2013 “State of the American Workplace” report, 42% of U.S. employees working at companies of 10 or fewer people felt they were “engaged” at work. That’s compared with the 30% of employees at large companies who said the same. To be sure, neither of those are especially high scores for engagement, but it’s clear that smaller teams have a leg up.
Fortunately, tighter-knit work cultures can be adopted within bigger companies, too. Whether you’re running a marketing or sales team or a CEO overseeing a team of developers, it boils down to a matter of structure. As companies grow, hierarchies tend to proliferate and grow more complex. The more hands and levels of approval a project needs to pass through, the greater the risk it can be watered down or held back. And from a personnel standpoint, larger teams are more likely to foster communication and interpersonal issues.
Cliché though it may be, there’s truth to “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Politics can start to creep in as coworkers vie for recognition and influence over a pool of peers that’s too big for any one individual to really shine. On a small team, though, it’s typically the reverse: Everyone plays a big hand in shaping the project–and gets credit for it–because “everyone” means just five or six people.
Keep in mind Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s “two pizza” rule: If a team can’t be fed with two pizzas, it’s too big. Especially in the developer world, small teams have built some of the most game-changing technologies. For example, the IBM AS400, one of the company’s most successful operating systems, was built by a very small team consisting of just a handful of people. VisiCalc, the original spreadsheet that, as tech historian Benj Edwards recounts, led “many businesses to consider buying a computer for the first time” when it launched in 1979, was developed by just two people (one of whom I have the pleasure of working with here at Alpha Software).
But small teams don’t just help advance tech; advancements in tech are also helping small teams collaborate better. Project planning solutions, analysis tools, even low-code application development and deployment platforms, are making it much easier for small teams to automate processes and punch above their weight. What’s more, small teams aren’t only easier to manage than larger ones—they’re less expensive, too.
Here are three reasons small teams tend to perform better in the tech world.
Another cliché that happens to prove its truth with virtually every innovative technology that arises. Great tech products may find their way to an assembly line, but they’re seldom born there. With a smaller team, you can more carefully handpick the right people for the job. Putting together a team with the right set of skills and the mix of personalities is key–it impacts not just how they work together but what they produce. The two most important factors I look for when hiring are tech talent with complementary skill sets who are also mutually respectful of one another’s unique expertise.
In a larger group, it’s easier for some voices to get lost or for the team to lack a common sense of direction. Improved communication is one of the greatest benefits of a smaller team. It’s also important to clearly define the roles and responsibilities of each team member so everyone has an opportunity to play to their strengths in a way that also serves the project’s goals.
On smaller teams, each player can make an outsize impact. It’s much easier to offer motivation and rewards, too. In fact, managers of small teams may even find they need to do that less. It’s easier for everyone to feel self-motivated and engaged with their work (remember that Gallup study) because they have more responsibility than being just another cog in the machine. And better teamwork also tends to mean more efficiency–another crucial requirement in the fast-moving tech sector.