Are Your Projects Failing Because of Group Dynamics?

“If you’re working in a big group, you’re fighting human nature.” So says Nathan Zook in a recent article for 37 Signals. (

youre-fighting-human-nature). In fact, the research shows that the most effective and efficient project groups tend to be in the range of 8 to 14 people.

istock_000005799789xsmall.jpgReferring to a report on business author Antony Jay’s book, “The Corporation Man,” Zook says that the ideal group size has historically hovered around what Jay calls a “ten-group.” Apple calls these groups “2-pizza teams,” meaning that the entire team can be fed with two pizzas – most of their best products have been the result of 2-pizza teams. Within a group that size, decisions are made quickly and collectively, effort is evenly distributed and actions are highly mobile and quickly maneuverable.

Let the group get larger than that, however, and it gets unwieldy. Decisions have to be formally discussed in a series of meetings, as members of a larger group are often out of the loop. Some members may slack off or have their voices drowned out by other more charismatic members. Eventually, larger groups devolve into cliques and other subgroups as the group dynamic tries to equalize itself around the ideal, slowing the work and stymieing progress.

Whether you’re leading a project team at work, organizing a church committee or starting a political action group, you should keep this dynamic in mind when choosing your team. But what is it, exactly, that makes a ten-group such an effective size? And how can you successfully staff your team for best effect?

Here are a few factors you should be aware of:

1. The value of individual contributions.

Groups in the ideal range allow everyone to make a contribution, and allow those contributions to be powerful and create real results. They allow everyone’s voice to be heard. By choosing a diverse variety of participants – whether culturally, personally or professionally – you maximize this dynamic by getting the benefit of a broad range experience, wisdom and ideas. In a larger group, however, voices can get lost or trampled over by others with stronger personalities or those trying to hog the spotlight. Which brings us to the second point…

2. Equal recognition.

In a smaller group, everyone works as a cohesive team and shares in the success or failure. By creating a group that has complementary skills and abilities, and by keeping the group within the ideal range, you can help assure that they will pull together as a bona fide team and work as a whole. On the other hand, larger groups allow for disparity in recognition; as the group divides up, some people may try to claim the successes of others for their own or attempt to push off unpopular work or blame onto others. If the project requires more hands than the ideal group size, you’re far better off to break it up into distinct teams with different goals and jobs than to assign the entire project to a larger group.

3. Equal participation.

In a small group, everyone has to pull his or her weight or the entire project fails. Keeping the team within the ideal range ensures that everyone will pull together – the group is simply too small for it to work otherwise, and for lapses or slacking to go unnoticed. Larger groups, however, allow some members to coast or make themselves less involved. It also allows some members to distance themselves from unpopular or controversial actions, skewing the teamwork dynamic. This makes the group wasteful and inefficient with it’s resources, and virtually assures that at least some potentially valuable contributions will not be made.

4. Maintaining authority and accountability.

Since everyone has a voice and pulls their weight in a small group, things are more likely to get done. And since no one can say they weren’t completely involved (plausible deniability), decisions are more likely to be ethical and sound. With a larger group, however, forward momentum is often squandered to group infighting, bureaucracy and scheduling issues. Additionally, because larger groups allow for more anonymity and distance, authority can be “delegated” to diffuse responsibility or shift blame in case of failure.

5. Enhanced creativity.

Smaller groups offer more time for individual input, therefore increasing the chances that someone will offer a new or innovative insight that can greatly enhance the project. Also, since smaller groups bond more completely, members often feel safer in offering off the wall or potentially controversial ideas, knowing that they’ll have fewer people to convince and that they’re facing a friendly crowd. In large groups, getting input from everyone means that no one has time to do contribute more than the bare minimum. Plus, there are more people to please and to get approval from. Therefore, ideas tend to settle around the least common denominator – contributors can’t afford to offend anyone or create controversy, or they risk being vetoed. Therefore, ideas and decisions are guaranteed to be mediocre.

Creating a smooth-running project team or other action group is a vital leadership skill. While it takes practice and familiarity to choose the best people for any given job or team, keeping the concept of the 2-pizza team in mind will go a long way to ensuring that the teams you create are productive and effective, and help you build a record of successful team leadership.

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