The Benefits of Working in Small Teams

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Scrum" by Jeff Sutherland. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are small teams more or less effective than larger teams? What are the benefits of working in small teams?

Management expert and creator of the Scrum method, Jeff Sutherland, says that working in small teams is more efficient than in large teams—he says that the ideal team size is five to nine people. Small teams promote communication, expand roles, and increase efficiency.

Here’s a look at the benefits of small teams.

Why Small Teams Are More Effective

Although you want your team to be dynamic and diverse, that doesn’t mean bigger is better. In fact, Sutherland argues that the bigger your team, the less effective they become. Ideally, he says that a team should consist of five to nine members. Adding extra members to your team will generate more problems than it fixes because the human brain can only hold so much information. More team members add more lines of communication, and our brains can’t keep up. 

Furthermore, adding people to a project that is behind schedule will only slow it down even more.  One reason is that it takes time to bring people up to speed, especially if the project is well underway. 

Malcolm Gladwell and the Power of Small Teams

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell argues that small groups have a stronger social influence than large groups. One reason for this is because of humans’ limited emotional capacity. We’re only able to maintain meaningful relationships with a small number of people. In a business sense, this is why it’s best to work in small teams. If you can actually have a relationship with every member of your team, you’re more likely to work well together.

Gladwell shows that organizations work best when limited to 150 or fewer people. This is much larger than Sutherland’s suggested team size, but the idea behind it is similar. The human brain can only process so much information. Larger teams lead to less communication and more hierarchies, which can slow down progress.

Remove Specific Titles and Roles

Sutherland argues that one benefit of working in small teams is that you can more easily remove specialized roles and titles. He advises doing this because it will help communication flow more freely among team members. If each team member has a specific role or title, they tend to do things that only fit within that specialized role. Furthermore, they may be inclined to withhold their specialized knowledge in order to preserve the power they have within the team. Both of these lead to a less communicative, and thus, less effective team.

Transactive Memory

Transactive memory is the idea that people who spend time together develop a specialized division of labor. In other words, each member of the group becomes a specialist in certain areas, and they rely on each other to remember and retrieve that particular information. You see this occur in couples, where one person knows how to fix the shower and the other is responsible for making the grocery list. But transactive memory is also helpful in work settings, as it reduces the memory load for each person and allows the group access to more information.

Although Sutherland recommends removing specialized roles, this is done to promote transactive memory within a team. Because team members are working together closely, they are more likely to share information. Because they don’t have specialized roles, they are less likely to withhold information. 

How to Fix the System

In a system that relies so heavily on teamwork, make sure you pay attention to how the team interacts and where team members tend to place blame when something goes wrong. When observing the mistakes or faults of others, it’s common to blame personality or disposition flaws rather than the situation. This phenomenon, called “Fundamental Attribution Error,” is common and can lead to disharmony, low morale, and arguments among teammates.

Sutherland claims that it’s not our inherent qualities but the system in which we work that dictates most of our actions. Instead of blaming individuals, the Scrum framework looks to find problems within the organizational structure and eliminate them. If there is something slowing the team down, it’s up to the team to figure out why and find a solution. If there is a person struggling to complete a task on time, don’t complain to your coworkers or quietly grumble to yourself in the corner. Ask what the problem is. Offer to help them. Pointing fingers isn’t going to help the team get things done. Focus on fixing problems collectively.

Fundamental Attribution Error

The fundamental attribution error is a long-recognized psychological bias that can negatively affect our personal lives and relationships as well as our professional ones. Here are some tips on how to avoid it:

Find an honest reason: If you find yourself judging another too harshly, come up with a situational reason a mistake may have occurred. This will help eliminate any negative thoughts.
Remember the good things: Fundamental attribution error usually occurs because of a pre-existing negative opinion of someone. Try to remember the good qualities about someone to help quell those negative feelings.
Give the benefit of the doubt: In general, assume people mean well, especially on the first occurrence of a mistake. Be sure to consider the circumstances, though. If a mistake is potentially harmful to others, giving the benefit of the doubt can be dangerous.
The Benefits of Working in Small Teams

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  • Why the "Waterfall Method" leads to inefficiency and wasted money
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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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