Why Small Teams Work

by Paul Starsoneck

During my corporate career I found the most successful and rewarding work was done as a member or leader of a small team.  I’ve advocated for the redeployment of successful teams in masse to new challenges, but routinely found leaders undervalued the existing team.

I work in a small team at ArmstrongMcguire.  Often the work we do is with small teams; board committees, search committees, staff members, etc.  My team at ArmstrongMcguire works because we have a diversity of experience and we respect the strengths of other team members and freely share expertise in the areas that we specialize.

What are the key elements in the successful performance of a small team?  My observations and experience point to Cohesion, Communication, Diversity, Accountability and Size.  Here are some of my thoughts and the findings of others who have studied the topic:


As an avid golfer and follower of the game, I was intrigued by the lack of success of most of the US Ryder Cup teams with the exception of 2008 team led by Paul Azinger.  What he did differently was to employ a technique used in the Navy Seal program.  He divided his team into pods based on similar personality traits.  When it came time to select the remaining teammates, he let each pod select their final member from a list of qualified candidates.   This created a much greater sense of cohesion among a small group formed in a short timeframe.

Communication is another key to successful interaction amongst team members.  The size of the team can be a contributing factor. A MSU study found: “Usually, groups smaller than five feel they lack enough diversity. Once the group has grown beyond seven or eight, the more reticent members may stop contributing. In groups of 15 or more, the forceful members often monopolize the discussion. Two or three members may do all the talking.  The other members' ideas may never surface.”


An article in the online magazine Chron brings us conclusions about small team communications that relate to the importance of Diversity and Accountability as well. “Creating the opportunity for the group to have regular meetings to brainstorm, discuss the variations on project directions and come up with creative solutions to existing problems will move the group closer together as a unit and is likely to result in a better finished product. The function of a small group is to place employees with different skill sets, job functions and knowledge bases together in an attempt to foster creativity and improve the efficiency in the organization.”


“Accountability within a small group is part of the interaction process. If the group has six employees working together, each person should have roughly the same amount of time and work invested in each project the group works on. Establishing work flow grids, having established deadlines, and requiring the group to keep its manager up to date on each person's progress will help ensure that everyone in the group contributes equally to the project.


A Wharton School of Business study helped determine the optimal size for their learning teams.  “Should the most productive team have 4.6 team members, as suggested in a recent article on “How to Build a Great Team” in Fortune magazine? What about naming five or six individuals to each team, which is the number of MBA students chosen each year by Wharton for its 144 separate learning teams?”

So you’ve organized a small team keeping in mind the elements that lead to successful performance.  What can you expect?

Better Learning

A University of Chicago study found: “Students’ STEM achievement changed from the 50th percentile for the students who had been taught by the traditional lecture-based instruction to the 65th percentile for the students who had been instructed using various forms of small-group learning methods.”

Better Problem Solving

According to one psychology study, groups of three to five people perform better than individuals when solving complex problems. The research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that groups of three people are able to solve difficult problems better than even the best individuals working alone.

More Efficiency

“A study done by consultancy QSM in 2005 seems to indicate that smaller teams are more efficient than larger teams. Not just a little more efficient, but dramatically more efficient. Comparing the cost of a large, internal team of employees versus a small, external team from a “boutique” software development firm, the cost advantage is huge. Even at a rather high $150/hour, the small team of contractors would only cost $600k versus the $1.8M of the large internal team.  Communication and coordination overhead rises dramatically with team size...That’s such a powerful effect, in fact, that a large team couldn’t possibly hope to achieve the goal of everyone coordinating their effort. But a small team could.”

If you’re part of a high performing small team or you’re responsible for staffing the next initiative or project, think about how to keep the nucleus of that high performing team together.  It may be one of your organization’s most valuable assets!

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