Big Design Teams are Hard Work

A (vaguely) mathematic exploration of why small teams can move more quickly

Working with teams of designers at Hyper Island earlier this year illustrated a typical problem that growing teams face when trying to get alignment. Of the six teams in the class all were in groups of five designers apart from one that had six. The team of six had trouble finding consensus and developing a healthy team culture. On the surface one extra team member shouldn’t make a difference. In fact, shouldn’t it have been an advantage?

Soft signals

There are a few ‘rules of thumb’ I’ve heard about managing a team size. Google has a Two Pizza rule (if you can’t feed your team on two pizzas your team is too big).

At IDEO teams are rarely above 4. We have extended teams with supporting roles, but the core team is invariably three, four or five.

Meanwhile, back on Hyper Island

At the end of project review the team was feeling a little down about the situation as their team communication challenges¬†felt like personal failure. To be clear, the amazing teaching team at Hyper Island spend a lot of time supporting healthy team culture and this was the only team with six members and a problem. I drew them a little chart I’d seen IDEO design director Steve O’Connor draw to explain what was going on.

The challenge becomes clear when you start to map out the lines of communications for a five- and six-person team. While we’re at it, let’s look at a four-person team too:

Team Diagrams

As you can see as you add team members the amount of communication gets very complex quickly. A five person team has 10 potential lines of communication. A six person team jumps to 15. In fact the difference between a four- and six-person team is 150% jump in communication management.

Of course there are many other factors at play in the success of a team. But paying attention to the number of people is very important.