Team collaboration goes big when your team goes small. Team size in itself affects productivity and team synergy. Smaller teams have higher engagement, less overhead, better flow, and improved decision making. Best of all, it is more cost-effective to reach goals with smaller teams.
Yet, many times organizations go with “bigger is better. This often comes at the cost of effectiveness and produces sub-par results. So much so that it may be better to simply create two smaller teams than using a large one.
There are some great ways you can use smart teams to supercharge team collaboration. Here is why you should try smaller teams and how to hack team collaboration for them.
Why team collaboration works best for small teams
Research into group dynamics suggest that human interactions are affected by the size of the group. There is a long list of studies, spanning over seven decades. Group size affects the format, style, and process of interaction and collaboration.
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In truth, teams and groups are not the same thing. In essence, teams are groups of people that share a mutual goal and act towards reaching it. However, we can use teams and groups interchangeably when it comes to team size. We ‘ve already covered team dynamics in a previous article, but the following tips go even further.
The fundamental unit of team collaboration
The fundamental unit of any type of collaboration is the person-to-person connection. Obviously, there are no teams of one-person; teams come into being starting with two team members.
Hence, the smallest possible team is a dyad, or a group of two people that share a mutual goal and cooperate to achieve that goal.
Since the fundamental unit of collaboration is the person-to-person connection, let’s see what happens with large teams. After all, much of this is fun math.
The fun math of small team collaboration
Whenever you increase a group of people, the number of person-to-person connections increases dramatically. Firstly, with a two-person group, you have 1 connection. With a three-person group, you have 3 connections. Add one more person and you now have six possible connections. A fifteen-person group has 105 connections. A sixty-person team has 1,770 connections. That is far too much for one person to deal with!
Imagine a group the size of Dunbar’s number (150). Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist that suggested humans can only maintain stable relationships with about 150 people. For groups of 150 people, there are about 11175 connections. That is a lot to manage! Far more than the challenge presented by a team of 8 people.
And, as you may have guessed, connections are both important and energy-consuming. It is the manifest nature of these connections that build the structure of teams.
The team collaboration challenge
In short, things change at scale. And not for the better. The more people you have in a group, the more complex everything becomes.
First of all, you increase diversity. This has several advantages. Increased diversity means you have a variety of backgrounds and experiences. These can become valuable inputs to solving a problem. Meanwhile, it also means that team collaboration decreases. Mainly because there is too much context for debating and harder to reach consensus.
Second of all, it becomes more difficult to flatten hierarchies. The larger the team, the greater the need for leadership. Alongside, a system of checks and balances develops, and now you have increased bureaucracy.
Essentially, when you scale teams, hierarchical networks are the only way to manage. This creates overhead and substantially decreases performance. Plenty of time is now lost in boring, useless meetings. Which, by the way, you can improve with smart meetings.
With small teams, everything gets better
Small teams are at the better end, precisely because there are fewer connections to manage. They can approach tasks and goals with limited overhead.
Small teams have a different type of bonding and a much greater team trust. Members of smaller teams are more proactive. Their overall participation rates are comparatively higher. Moreover, they are more engaged and more committed. Smaller teams are more aware of team goals, have better rapport and are more comfortable in their communications.
This study lists other effects of working in a small team. The results, however, are pretty clear. Small teams boost team collaboration. This other study points out how small teams are much better at training their members. Why? Because learning is facilitated and encouraged in small teams. So if everything is better with small teams, what exactly is a small team? It’s a bit more math.
Team collaboration hacks for small teams
There are 3 amazing hacks to use when you want to maximize team collaboration in small teams. It already happens naturally, so most of these hacks focus on optimizations.
1. Use the right communication tools
You cannot have team collaboration without team communications. This is precisely why smaller teams perform better. Their communications improve.
Sure, you can take a large team and offer them plenty of training to be effective communicators. You can include this in your essential training package. And have everyone know some highly effective communication techniques.
But you can also step up in the modern age and use the best it has to offer. In terms of team communications and beyond. One amazing thing is that you can enhance team communications for a team of any size.
And you can support future members by intelligently indexing team communications. This creates a knowledge resource that favors knowledge sharing and prompts collaboration. Best of all, it boosts overall focus.
What may be important to consider is how technology has augmented our reality. A naturalistic limitation such as Dunbar’s number is easy to overcome on social media. Friend management features and interaction records help a lot.
Similarly, instant team communications for business present high collaborative advantages. The full effect on team collaboration remains to be seen.
2. Optimize team size for maximal collaboration
The ideal team size for maximal collaboration is between 3 and 8 people.
Think of it this way. For 8 people, you have 23 connections to manage. That might seem like a lot. In fact, it is a lot less than 36 connections, which is what happens in teams of 9 people. Take that, Belbin’s team roles!
Going below 3 people means you don’t get the benefits of a minimal amount of complexity. There is some inherent instability to groups of 3 people, and dyads are clearly more stable. However, you still need to back up enough diversity to give the team a swiss-knife edge.
Teams of 3 people have a great advantage over any other pairing. Why? Because groups of three people are the largest possible group in which conversation engages all parties.
I’ll explain. Two people can have a conversation, a dyad-conversation. Four people can either split into 2 dyad-conversations or you have a triad listening to the fourth person. Any group larger than 4 people will form an audience plus one, a speaker. The other option is conversation fragmentation.
Another great thing about teams this small is that they regroup faster. Which means that, for example, they take less time to regain focus after a break. And they benefit a lot more from strategic breaks. Most of all, they are most likely to adapt to new challenges in real time. And will find it easier to prioritize.
3. Work with micro-goals
Micro-goals are ultra-specific, short-term to mid-term goals that can be reached by a small team. Or a “deadly squad,” if you like. We have covered micro-goals before here.
One great way to optimize team collaboration is to improve task fragmentation. And using “squads” of 3-5 people will do precisely that. You can later on align teams and reach several such micro-goals.
The ideal number for this seems to be 5 people. If you have 5 people, you can tackle any micro-goal. And you know this already from pop-culture. From the A-team to any other team.
Take about 5 individuals, each with an unique set of skills. And point them at the right target. Small enough teams are resilient. Small teams of 5 people are also perfect for dealing with work pressure. They tackle each problem, one challenge at a time. It seems to be the perfect balance between size and effectiveness. And you can fragment whole departments into such task squads.
Another key factor is to choose the right people for the task. It is indeed very important to put the right emphasis on individual talents and skills. Why? Because the team you create to reach a micro-goal is like a cocktail. Some things work and some things won’t. Obviously, you won’t put together a team of coders to tackle sales. Though you may easily include one coder when you create a balanced team to cover sales.
4. Build team trust
While team trust is inherently greater in small teams, investing in team trust boosts overall team collaboration. Indeed, in smaller teams, people get to know each other better. There are fewer connections to manage, so they grow deeper.
Now suppose you can hack team trust for small teams from the start. Instead of waiting for them to develop trust, you can swiftly start them off. Just use a few smart measures:
- Take the opportunity to organize a small 1-day training focused on team-building. Have your small team participate in this training. Better yet, consider organizing a small-team competition on some sort of topic. Now make a decision if it is an open or a closed competition. Hackathons are an incredible way to do this and an awesome opportunity to meet with outside talent.
- Consider using the congruence-method as explained here. This works great for both managers and team leaders. Essentially, there are 4 pillars to this method. First of all, always keep your promises. Second of all, accept and acknowledge your limits. Thirdly, become comfortable with falling back on the team.
- Openly admit when you’re wrong. Accepting you are wrong is what helps you move forward.
When people grow to know each other better, trust levels increase.
5. Increase team engagement
Boosting engagement is challenging. It’s true, more engaged teams perform better. Yet, boosting employee engagement is difficult. And the positive effects of having a small team matter very little. In truth, engagement is easier with small teams. Nonetheless, here are some pointers onto how to increase employee engagement:
- Encourage a culture of continuous learning. Firstly, encourage teams to learn, share knowledge, grow and expand on what they’ve learned. Secondly, organize “knowledge sharing days.” This is how everyone can share one thing they learned that might matter to the team. It can be anything from healthy dieting to the logic of comparative research. Anything, just as long as knowledge sharing happens.
- Nurture a psychologically safe environment. You know, the kind of environment in which knowledge sharing happens. And it’s safe to share ideas, thoughts or even admit to mistakes.
- Tackle work stress and work pressure. We have a whole series of articles on how to deal with work pressure. When people are stressed, they fail to collaborate. Instead, they go into “fight or flight.”
- Cut down on useless meetings. Meetings can be high-demotivators. Yet, sometimes they’re necessary. Sure, you can improve on your meetings and optimize them. But reducing overall meeting time and frequency will have a positive impact on team engagement.
- Improve team communications. Once again, a team communication platform with collaborative features are an effective means to boost team engagement.
Overall, team collaboration can best be maximized with adjusting the size of the team and team collaboration software. You can also set special tasks and challenges, and use micro-goals. And naturally, improving team trust and team engagement also help. You can even make better use of team decisions.
Ultimately, it all boils down to how well you organize your small teams. This is fairly simple. As long as you use teams that have fewer than 8 members, you will benefit from the “small teams advantage.” As long as you use the right smart tools you may have a chance at furthering this effect.