Optimal Team Size

by Edward Henkler on February 4, 2014

Anyone who reads business books will recognize the subject of optimal team size as a familiar topic with very little consensus.  “The Third Bullet” by Stephen Hunter looks at this question hypothetically.  Many assumed that President Kennedy was assassinated by a government agency, as they believed it would take a large organization to pull off such an audacious act.  Stephen’s novel suggests the possibility that it was accomplished by a small, nimble organization.  In addition to making it easier to keep the secret, small teams require fewer approvals, react faster, experience fewer distractions, and have less politics.

 The Third Bullet (Stephen Hunter)

Working in a start-up environment reinforces the potential of small teams to represent the optimal team size.  With very limited financial and human resources, everyone is focused on the mission and there is absolutely no room for anything which doesn’t contribute to the bottom line.  Documentation may not be as thorough and some details may be missed but you can rest assured that every member of the team knows exactly what is at stake and is focused on the core goal.  As the team size grows, a few things begin to happen.  Secondary agendas arise and individual contributions may diminish as it becomes progressively easier to assume that someone else is responsible.  The phrase, “it’s not my job” is commonplace in a large company yet seldom heard in a start-up, because everyone is doggedly pursuing a common goal.

While I’m not suggesting that all teams should be small, I do think it’s important to take the best attributes of start-ups and embed them in your organization, regardless of size.  Strive to remain nimble and laser-focused on a small set of objectives, all of which are integral to accomplishing your mission.  It will probably make your work more enervating and will definitely make your team more effective.

Please stay away from the assassinations, which are never the right way to resolve a conflict.  Instead recognize that bigger is not always better; small teams can accomplish audacious outcomes!

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