Why Small Teams Win And Bigger Ones Fail

How many people do you need to design a great product?

Jeff Bezos has a rule at Amazon, or perhaps more aptly a philosophy. If a team cannot be fed by two pizzas then that team is too large — Forbes

We live in a world of abundance which in the end has a negative consequence on our way of thinking. And in the business world, we become cluttered in the need for more. More people, more resources, bigger offices, more products, more features — it’s a “more and more” era. And we slowly start forgetting that less is a good thing. Constraints are advantages in disguise.

I had a conversation with a guest on the podcast, and we noticed that some companies hire fast and a lot of designers only because everybody else does it. They are on a hunt for talent, and they want the most and the best. This way, they make teams of hundreds, adding layers and layers and layers of human resources in the belief of “more is better”.

And you might think that, for example, being a company such as Facebook who serves more than 1 billion users you need that many designers. You need dedicated teams who will work on a simple share button. Because otherwise how can you serve 1 billion people?

When you see big companies pumping money in like crazy into their design teams, you start getting a feeling that you need dozens or hundreds of designers to make it happen in the new “design-driven era”. But that’s not true. Usually, if not always, it’s a waste of money.

Nobody cancelled a basic design rule which states: quality is always better than quantity.

The Ringleman effect

The Ringelmann effect is the tendency of individual members of a group to become less and less productive as the size of the group increases.

Ringelmann’s experiment consisted in letting twenty students alone and in groups on a five-meter rope, the other end of which led to a dynamometer. When two people pulled together on the rope, each of them performed on average only 93% of what he had before achieved alone. In three people it was still 85%, at four 77%, until in a group of eight people everyone provided an average of 50% of his most performance.

This is what the psychologists call the Ringelmann effect ever since, and they explain it as follows. In the case of the joint effort, the impact of the individual commitment is less intense and so the motivation to give everything is lacking. The personal contribution is also indistinguishable, which leads to “piggybacking”. (Source: Wikipedia)

Now, I know there are sceptics who believe that an experiment which involves a team’s force testing has nothing to do with creativity. So I want to show you how fewer people working on a problem, can bring you one of the best creative results possible.

Nike’s HTM

HTM is the name of Nike’s experimental design project launched in 2002. HTM takes its initials from the first names of its three collaborators: Hiroshi Fujiwara, Tinker Hatfield and Nike’s CEO and designer Mark Parker.

What was the role of HTM? Three designers and the primary decision maker got into a room, left aside their daily routines and worked on the reinterpretation of existing product designs to the development of new ones. This is also a fantastic example of how designers can work together with the CEO of a company rather than just receive orders on what to do.

HTM was meant to be a meeting of the minds where the three guys could get together, put aside their regular work, and create something fresh that would be innovative for Nike. There were no titles, no politics, no requirements, but only creative freedom. And if you wonder if that works or what results could possibly three people bring, here is some of the stuff they’ve created:

2002–2010
2012–2014

Working only in three allowed them to have all the time in the world and an accelerated production process, which is impossible to realise with a standard company process. The quick pace from development to release is otherwise unthinkable for an enterprise of Nike’s scale. Today, HTM continues to release its products on an irregular schedule. (Source)

The LEGO study

There is also a study conducted by three professors from UCLA which involves building stuff with LEGO. In the experiment, ran by these professors, they used LEGO bricks and two teams made of 2 and 4 people. The goal was to see which side could put together a specific LEGO structure together faster and better. The team consisting of 2 people accomplished the task in 36 minutes whereas the group of 4 people finished the task in 56 minutes. And the reason behind it is obvious — more people you have on the team, more time it takes to align them on the same page of your thinking process.


Keep the team as small as possible. Metcalfe’s law which states that “the effect of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system” has a corollary when it comes to project teams. The efficiency of the team is approximately the inverse of the square of the number of members in the team. I’m beginning to think three people is the optimal for a 1.0 product release. Start out by reducing the number of people you plan to add to the team, and then reduce some more — Marc Hedlund

When things aren’t working…

…the natural tendency is to throw more at a problem. And, usually, it is more people and time. By doing that, you end up bloating your primary product, problem or idea. But the right way to go about is to cut back.

If you ever watched Kitchen Nightmares, Gordon Ramsay has a pattern of helping restaurants. To help them get back on track, he cuts down their menus to only a couple of dishes. Why? Because owners think that making every dish possible will increase their success, but instead they get crappy food and inventory problems. That’s why Ramsay’s first step is almost always to trim the menu. (source: Rework)

And the same principles apply not only to restaurants but products and teams too. When you are trying to build the “next big thing”, you need creative constraints. But if you start pushing back deadlines and increasing budget and teams, you’ll never stop. Because it’s like a drug.

But why do we still scale teams like crazy even though this does not work so well?

Multiple factors are influencing this decision and way of thinking. It might be envy, pressure from investors or competitors, poor management or people with bad influence on the team. But most of the times it happens when a company has too many resources to spend.

Once you have a very, very large budget, you actually look for expensive things to spend it on — Rory Sutherland

At one point in time, a company achieves a certain level of financial and market success. And after a while, things are not working so well as they did in the early days. So they have a natural tendency to throw more at a problem. More people, more time, more resources — in the hope that it will help them get to the next level. But that’s not true.

Throwing more people at a problem is a “factory mentality” which means that if more people work on something, more outputs or better the result you get.

It’s of course challenging…

…to build new products or features in a team of two to three, but that’s the beauty of constraints. There’s a widespread myth that to get a better picture you need a larger canvas. Yet every creative knows this to be untrue. Too much freedom can lead to mediocrity. Because without boundaries there’s no incentive to break through them.

A real creative person, in a tiny team with few resources, will have no difficulty redefining a brief or defying convention. But give too much freedom, too many people and resources to a problem, and you’ll get a final product that is over-designed, over-worked, over-budget and under-focused. The best thing you can do is throw less at a problem. So, for example, if you can’t build a V1 of your product in a team of three people, this means that either the people are not right, or the product you are trying to create is too complicated.


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