If two’s company, what’s a crowd?

“Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory,” fashion doyenne Coco Chanel famously instructed. “Less is always more.” Sound style advice perhaps, but in an era when collaboration is hailed as the new black, is there such a thing as a team that’s too big? Yes, according to Wharton management professor, Jennifer Mueller. Muller’s research found that while larger teams generally are more productive overall, individual members of the bigger groups were less so than their counterparts on the smaller teams. “There are costs to collaborating,” Mueller says. “In larger teams, one of those costs is that people may not have the time and energy to form relationships that really help their ability to be productive.” Yet major projects such as an acquisition or new IT system usually require complex teams. Researchers Lynda Gratton and Tamara Erickson found that the very characteristics that made such teams suitable – large, virtual, diverse, and specialised – could destroy members’ ability to work together. “A decade or so ago, the common view was that true teams rarely had more than 20 members,” the researchers say. “Today, according to our research, many complex tasks involve teams of 100 or more.” However, as the size of a team increases beyond 20 members, the tendency to collaborate naturally decreases. “Strengthening your organisation’s capacity for collaboration requires a combination of long-term investments – in building relationships and trust, in developing a culture in which senior leaders are role models of co-operation – and smart near-term decisions about the ways teams are formed, roles are defined, and challenges and tasks are articulated.”

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