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Are Bigger Teams Better?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
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If you ever interview for an executive level position, they will ask you about the largest team you’ve managed. 10 people? 100? 1,000? It’s a common question as the company wants to hire someone who has managed a team roughly the same size as they need you to manage.
But, this is a strange question if you think about it. Do you want someone running a 100 person team because they have run a 100 person team before? Or do you want someone who could get the same amount done with 25 people? Is it better to have run a larger team or better to get more done with less?
The answer depends, which is why the question is strange. Larger teams (and experience running them) is not always better, nor is running smaller teams and doing more with less. Sometimes one is better, sometimes you want the other! Let’s dig in…
Smaller Teams are Better When…
Small teams have been romanticized in the age of startups, and we have countless movies about a small team taking on a huge company and winning. But startups are small out of necessity, they don’t have the resources to be bigger teams! Many would choose to be bigger if they could.
One way to think about teams is that size is a tradeoff between productivity and overhead. The more people you have the more tasks that can be accomplished, but the more communication and process necessary to coordinate those tasks. A larger team can complete more tasks but requires more effort to coordinate, while a small team might not require much coordination but cannot get as much done.
If you think about it this way, small teams excel when coordination becomes very expensive. This happens in cases where the problem is poorly defined (or unknown), there is not a clear strategy or the environment is changing quickly. In all of those cases coordination is hard because everything will be changing all the time. A small team who doesn’t require coordination will do better while the larger team struggles to simply keep everyone together.
For example, let’s say we want to build a new product from scratch in a new market. We might not know much about the market and what this new product needs to do, so having a large team will simply lead to a lot of confusion about what we should do and who should do it. A small team can jump in and start testing, learning and iterating quickly to figure these things out.
Small teams also excel when speed is critical. It takes time to set up coordination for a larger team, and during that set up time the small team might be able to get a lot of things done. If you have a deadline in a year, a large team can do it but if you have a deadline tomorrow you need a small team.
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Bigger Teams are Better When…
When you see companies in movies they are typically portrayed as slow moving, bureaucratic organizations that are hilariously inefficient. If big teams are so bad, why do companies grow as they are more successful? Why are companies so big?
A different way to think about team and size is in terms of focus. Everyone can only ever have a single #1 priority, so the more people you have the more #1 priorities you can have. If you have a well understood problem that you can break down into a large number of smaller problems, you want every problem to be someone’s #1 priority.
As a result, big teams are great at optimization. While small teams can move fast and deal with ambiguity, they simply can’t work on many things at once. A large team can afford to have someone optimize a problem that the small team will never even work on.
For example, Mr. Beast is one of the most popular YouTube celebrities. Like most massive influencers, he has a large team behind him helping produce, promote and refine his video content. A typical YouTuber might be a single person (or two or three) who need to do everything from making videos to publishing them and marketing them. Mr. Beast’s team is big enough that he has 6 people whose sole job is choosing and perfecting the thumbnails that appear for each of his videos! Just the thumbnails! Other channels might not spend much time on thumbnails, but he has an entire team doing nothing else.
This works because YouTube is a mature platform, and there are myriad small problems that you need to solve to succeed. The better your thumbnails, the more people who watch your videos and the bigger your audience. The bigger your audience, the more money you make and the bigger team you can hire. This process repeats and the team gets bigger and bigger.
So it goes at all companies. Once the business is at a point where it’s well understood, the bigger the team the better the business can run.
It all depends…
As you can see, there is no universal answer to the best team size. It depends on your business, the problems you are solving and what needs to be done. A team can be too small and not get enough done, or too big and suffer from internal bureaucracy and gridlock.
Many of us have worked at companies that are too big or too small, and it shapes our view of size. We begin to think that big teams are bad, instead of realizing that the team size might represent a different kind of underlying problem.
I think about all of this when I get asked about the sizes of teams I’ve run. It’s just not the right question. The right question is how big does the team need to be to solve the problem you’re hired to solve? Instead of hiring people to run teams, hire people to solve problems.
Team size should never be a metric of success, like the score in a game. What should matter is the right size team, which will always depend.
For more on Teams and Management, see: