More power in smaller teams

We are often taught to believe that "bigger is better" — bigger teams, bigger production systems, bigger farms, bigger businesses, bigger banks. In the Industrial Revolution, this may have been true. Is it still true as we look to reshape the world?

In theory, bigger should be better — it should lead to greater efficiencies and greater specialisation opportunity. However, such efficiencies rely on compliance and lack of variation, and there is nothing more variable than the human psyche — think how hard it is to choose a restaurant in a group of 20 people.

The woeful centralisation of the country’s polytechnic system is a fine example of something looking better on paper, than in reality. Bigger can also mean more layers, slower decision making, loss of autonomy and loss of innovation.

Similarly, our country’s science and innovation sector promotes extensive collaboration and national initiatives — large Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment grants are put together with multiple organisations across the country. This leads to lawyers and managers fighting over the fine print culminating in ridiculous overheads — the scientists are left scratching their heads wondering what they set out to do in the first place. Those who challenge the status quo are forced to keep quiet, burying themselves in a cave of cynicism, or leave the nest.

It’s time to rethink how we put teams together to solve the very big issues facing us. I have been reading a lot about innovation and the power of small cross-disciplinary teams (as I wrote about in my last column). Our science and innovation system is geared to develop specialists and to put those specialists into groups of more specialists. We gain an undergrad degree, which becomes narrow as we progress, then we go on to a masters or doctorate training, blocking out the world while we focus on a single pathway — "Doubled Haploid Production Through Wheat x Maize Hybridisation" — compelling reading anyone? That book (thesis), which took me four years to write, sits gathering dust in my office as my contribution to scientific discovery.

Such deep knowledge can be important and sometimes you need to disappear down rabbit holes before you can pan widely. What I think we miss in this training is the ability to truly challenge ourselves and be genuinely creative.

Smaller teams are able be innovative, productive and transparent, not having to worry about layers and politics. In psychology, this is known as the Ringelmann effect, where individual productivity decreases as group size increases.

What the effect shows is that in larger groups, individuals feel less responsible for their output and work less. Smaller, agile teams are more likely to carry their weight, are better able to make decisions, and execute tasks in a shorter amount of time. In his early days of setting up Amazon, Jeff Bezos established a rule that every internal team should be small enough to be fed with two pizzas.

When you start observing society, you can see the Ringelmann effect everywhere, yet we still believe we can improve efficiencies and innovation by forced collaboration of large organisations — it’s truly soul destroying.

Imagine a different scenario — innovation funding available to solve problems like methane mitigation, water-use in toilets, food wastage, housing costs or vertical farming. You have to come up with a solution with a team of no more than six people — who would you choose to be in your group?

I would choose a visionary/entrepreneurial type; an integrator — probably an English or history lover; a designer — it has to look good and function; an engineer, it has to work and be scalable; a biologist — someone needs to understand variation (and I need a job); and a diplomat or a social worker — we need to bring people with us. We would theorise, design and test our invention, then once we had established what worked, we would scale and commercialise.

How many teams do you know that have six people or less in them? How many teams do you know with people from such diverse backgrounds? If you could create your ideal team, what would it look like and would it look different from your existing network? It might just be time to simultaneously narrow your team and widen your horizons — challenge accepted.

 - Anna Campbell is a co-founder of Zestt Wellness, a nutraceutical company. She also holds various directorships.