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Big or small: Which team size is better? Here’s what a study says about both

Small teams tend to produce more disruptive ideas than larger ones, according to a study of scientific publications in the journal Nature.
Small teams tend to produce more disruptive ideas than larger ones, according to a study of scientific publications in the journal Nature.

If you want to come up with disruptive ideas in your organization, does it matter what size your teams are?

It turns out it does matter, at least in science.

Science (15 February 2019, page 672-73) reported on a recently published letter in the journal Nature (13 February 2019) that reviewed journal publications of 65 million papers over a period from 1954 to 2014 (thank goodness for computers these days). The researchers examined patterns in the publications of when novel, disruptive ideas emerged versus ideas that were more incremental and developmental, building upon existing ideas.

Apparently, the ideas in research papers with small teams (one or two authors) were three times more likely to “be highly disruptive.” This compares to papers with large teams (eight or more people) which tended to report more incremental results that built upon existing ideas. The results held true across disciplines (e.g., medicine, social sciences, chemistry, computer/information technology and environmental/earth sciences) and over time.

The conclusion: both types of teams are critical, but each may bring different strengths to a project.

Nancy Napier.jpg
Nancy Napier

What does this mean for business?

While it’s not directly the same, I do wonder whether leaders should consider whether team size makes a difference in the type of results they seek when it comes to creativity or innovation. Perhaps they could start by examining their own company’s ideas over time — which type (disruptive or incremental) does the company come up with? Which type does the firm want? What patterns or conditions seem to help generate one or the other? Does team size matter in the mix of elements?

Intuitively, it makes sense that a larger (perhaps more bureaucratic) team would build on existing ideas while a smaller, more nimble one could stretch in new directions. While it may work in science, business leaders should consider whether it works in their worlds as well.

Nancy Napier is a Boise State University distinguished professor. nnapier@boisestate.edu

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