A recent meta-study by the University of Chicago compares the creativity of teams of various sizes. [1] It concludes that team size has a significant influence on the amount and type of innovation and creativity they exhibit. Or to precis the findings: large teams innovate incrementally, while breakthroughs happen in small teams.

The study focused on innovation and creativity in science and technology. Small teams are much more likely to generate the “root” papers that characterise a major advance in thinking. It does not necessarily follow that this effect of size would apply to all teams, but it is logical that the same or similar mechanisms may be at work. In exploring ideas, smaller teams tended to seek out a much wider range of perspectives and references. Larger teams tended to rely on recent publications and current convention — creating a kind of herd mentality. Says one of the authors, Lingfei Wu: “Small teams remember forgotten ideas, ask questions and create new directions, whereas large teams chase hotspots and forget less popular ideas, answer questions and stabilize established paradigms.” Every incremental increase in team size reduced this activity.

Practical ways, in which teams and team coaches can make use of these insights include:

  • Match team size to the task in hand. Larger teams are better at getting things done, says this study, so linking them with smaller teams can challenge their assumptions and increase the overall level of creativity.
  • Recognise and work with people’s preferences for the size of team that allows them to contribute best. Highly creative people may feel stifled in a large team environment, for example. Others may get a greater buzz from having a foot in both camps.
  • Help the team develop its own measures of innovation and creativity and use these to determine where to create smaller sub-teams. Even teams in creative industries can be myopic about their level and focus of creativity. For example, when a graphic design team of 14 people asked its customers to rate it on various measures of creativity, it found it had over-estimated the difference that customers perceived between it and its competitors. Moreover, it realised that it had a very low history of innovation in non-design aspects of its business, such as customer relationship management.
  • Recognise that “social loafing” (in which everyone puts in less effort when there are more people, on whom to offload responsibility) applies to creative thinking as well as to task performance. In fact, the social loafing effect may well be greater in respect of creative thinking, because it requires a lot more investment of mental energy.
  • Support large teams in thinking about how they can behave more like small teams. One simple technique is to split the large team into groups of three. Each group has three months to develop and present a radically new idea, or a new take on an old and long discarded idea. A key criterion is that the idea must be disruptive to current thinking or practice. Group membership changes each quarter, with two people remaining and one moving on to another trio.

The more teams are aware of how size influences thinking patterns and behaviour, the more choices they have in how they tackle their tasks together.

© David Clutterbuck, 2019


[1] Lu, W and Evans A Large teams develop, and small teams disrupt, science and technology, Nature (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-0941-9 , https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-0941-9 

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