Leadership Debate – BIG TEAM or small team

One of my curses in life is that I come across as a know-it-all. I think that this is because, way down deep, I am actually a know-it-all. Some of you may not believe this, but I hate that about myself. I don’t like when I see it in other people and I certainly don’t like seeing it in myself. I try very hard to hold it down and channel it constructively. Unfortunately, it still leaks out sometimes.

As a know-it-all I tend to have hard and fast opinions on most topics. Sometimes it’s based on a well thought out set of information. Other times it’s based on a split second thought. Oddly enough, they both sound exactly the same when they come out of my mouth. Most people cannot tell which is which. In fact, sometimes I myself don’t even know which is which. I’ve just learned to trust whatever queues up.

That’s why it always interests me so when I run across a topic that generates conflicting responses in my mind. It means that I was not able to make a judgment with either my conscious or subconscious mind. This is exactly what happened earlier this week when I thought about the effectiveness of various team sizes.

Going into the conversation I want us to have a consistent understanding of what we are and aren’t talking about. In this case, we are not talking about the size of a team in regards to specific number. When I say a small team, I’m not talking about 5 people and when I talk about a large team I’m not talking about 500. The appropriate size of a team is determined by the scope of the work that they are trying to accomplish.

In a perfect world we would know exactly how many people it takes to get the job done. In fact, companies spend millions of dollars each year trying to accomplish this. Unfortunately, unless the work is very regimented and/or timed, it is almost impossible to accomplish. That being said, any leader worth their salt has a good sense for whether their org is filled with achievers or slackers. Based on that, they also have a good sense for whether they are overstaffed or understaffed. If you have a department full of slackers then you are almost invariably over-staffed because you need extra bodies to make up for the dead weight. On the other hand, if you have a team of achievers then you don’t need nearly as many people, so you are likely dealing with a small team.

So that’s the concept of small team/large team that I’m referring to. A small team is one that is understaffed. A large team is one that is overstaffed. The question that I couldn’t answer off the top of my head is this – Which would I prefer to lead?

The easy answer is the large team. There are a number of significant advantages to a large team. First, you are more likely to have the resource capacity to take on unexpected work. This cannot be underestimated. Corporate America is not static. Change is rampant and leaders regularly face unexpected situations that they need manpower to address.

A second and underrated benefit is the fact that the additional capacity inherent in large teams decreases the level of ambient stress experienced by the team. The employees aren’t expected to work miracles because there are plenty of people available to help. The decreased stress makes it easier for the teams to bond and there is time available for the team to engage in self-development which benefits the entire company.

Sounds great doesn’t it? There is a downside though and it is significant. The first downside is that a large team is a prime target for downsizing. Large teams negatively impact a company’s profit margin so they are always looking to whittle down the size of the team.

Secondly, in a larger team it’s easier for people to get away with passing the buck. It’s an unfortunate fact that not every person is a hard worker. Typical behavior from these folks is to try and pass their more challenging assignments off on the hard workers. If you keep an eye out for it you’ll see this dynamic on more teams than you would expect. Eventually the hard workers will leave the team. They leave the team for two reasons. First, they are sick of the unfair split of work. Second, they’ve built up so much more experience than those around them that they have increased their desirability among other managers. Anyway, in a large team there are always opportunities such as this to exploit than there are on a smaller team. As a result, the behavior is typically ignored.

The last thing that bothers me about large teams is that the executive a couple of levels up automatically assume that everything that I’ve said in the last paragraph is the gospel. They’ll believe it even if you manage the team effectively and ensure that everyone is doing good work. As a result, the executive assumes that you aren’t doing a good job simply because of the big team stigma.

The small teams don’t usually have these problems. Small teams are seen as ‘lean and mean’ by executives and you must be a great leader if you are able to succeed with one. In fact, if you think about it, that’s a key advantage. When you lead that large team you’ll be vilified whether you’re doing good or not. With the smaller team you get a lot of credit if you succeed, and even if you fail you have a ready-made excuse that is perfectly reasonable and acceptable.

Another cool thing about small teams is that it is much easier to generate a sense of urgency and motivate the group towards the common goal. See, most teams that are understaffed are well aware of it. A good manager can use that to their advantage and help the team to see that they will have to pull closer together and work better as a team to accomplish everything that needs to be accomplished.

Earlier I mentioned the slackers who try and use others instead of doing work themselves. On a small team this is much less easy to get away with. The top workers are already handling as much as possible. As a result, the slacker must either do the job reasonably well or put themselves in line to be replaced. This makes it a little easier on the manager who doesn’t have to focus an eagle eye on that kind of behavior in this situation.

The problems with small teams are pretty obvious though. You typically don’t have any capacity. So when the winds of change inevitably blow you are forced to figure out what can be delayed or worked differently while still accomplishing your goals. It doesn’t seem that bad the first or second time. But when it happens again and again it wears you down.

The employees feel the same way. There’s no leeway, no room for them to have an easy day or two every once in a while. Most people respond best when they can put a high level of effort in for a specific amount of time and then rest and recover for a little bit before ramping up again. This is not possible on the really small teams. Instead, you are forced to jump from project to project to project. Eventually you run out of gas. This also hurts from a training and development perspective. As a manager you’re watching your team struggle and suffer and get even more frustrated because you can’t give them the time they need for training to stay current on their skill set or work on development opportunities.

Conclusion

I’ve changed this conclusion twice in the last few days. I think I would choose the large team. However, one of my first goals would be to make it smaller. That’s the only way that I can see to truly succeed in that scenario. If you come in, drive success and then continue to succeed as you continue to trim the dead weight and try to get your team to the optimal size. I think that the remaining employees would be nervous at first, but communication could alleviate a lot of that. Your great employees would actually come to be proud to be on the team in the long run because they would know their effort was recognized.

What do you guys think? Would you rather work on a small team where life is harder but you can stand out or would you prefer the easier life on the large team where you’re just another face in the crowd?

Be Blessed,

Jonathan

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Posted on July 9, 2011, in Leadership Development and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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