In 2006, the US Marine Corps posed a problem that we thought was important. When moving cargo between warships and shore, their load and unload times were too long, putting the crews at risk. They wanted us to help find a solution that would decrease load and unload times, reduce cargo damage, and minimize crew involvement.

The Marine Corps has about 180,000 active personnel and an annual budget of about $50 billion. So why would they come to a company like PCDworks, with a staff of only 10?

They came to us not despite our size, but because of it.

Companies are increasingly relying on larger teams, but this is a problem for innovation. According to research published by the Harvard Business Review, an analysis of over 65 million papers, patents, and software products revealed an interesting insight: while large teams excel at developing existing ideas, small teams are the ones to innovate, coming up with new ideas and opportunities.

Here are three reasons why smaller teams (approximately 7-13 people) are not only better at innovating but also faster and cheaper than their larger counterparts.

#1: Agility

Agility is the ability to move and adapt quickly. It is crucial to innovation because nobody innovates on the first try. Innovation is a process of ideation: try, fail, learn and adapt, try again. The faster you move through that process, the faster you innovate. 

Compared to small teams, large teams will always be slower for several reasons:

  1. Large teams come with bureaucracy. The more people you have on a team, the more (usually unproductive) meetings you will have. Getting everyone to agree on a course of action can take weeks, months, and even years, so you spend the majority of your time talking instead of doing.
  2. Large teams are prone to groupthink. If you have thirty people in a room, they will talk themselves out of innovation every time. They will naturally align and agree with the majority opinion, which is rarely the creative, outside-the-box thinking you need for innovation. 
  3. Large teams tend to be more risk-averse. Nothing kills innovation faster than having to prove the ROI of an idea before you have a chance to explore it. But this is exactly what many corporations do. They set up proof barriers and only invest in sure bets.

Because large teams are slower, they’re also more likely to fall into the sunk-cost fallacy, becoming unwilling to abandon an idea and try something new because of the time and resources they’ve already invested. Think of it like rolling a large boulder: it’s extremely difficult to get it moving, and then once it’s moving, it’s hard to stop it or change directions.

#2: Teamwork

Small teams tend to have better teamwork than large teams. Small teams simply “click” in a way that large teams don’t. When you get together every day and work cheek to jowl with the same people, you fall in sync. 

A lot of this comes down to trust. As you forge into the unknown, you need to know you can rely on your team. That can be difficult in larger teams, because there is a diffusion of responsibility. It’s not always clear who is supposed to do what, so when something goes wrong, it’s easy to shift blame. And blame does happen, because large groups are often a “team” only in name. In reality, they are individuals acting in their own best interests.

In a small team, there’s no hiding. Everybody knows who is supposed to do what, so there is clear accountability, which lets you trust that everyone is doing their job. With trust comes mutual respect. Everyone has a clear role and value, and you learn to leverage each other’s strengths and offset each other’s weaknesses, leading to a stronger, unified team.

#3: Wisdom

There’s an old parable about a group of blind men who come upon a strange object. The first man touches it and says, “Ah! I know what it is. It is a snake.”

The second says, “No, it is definitely a tree.”

“What are you talking about?” asks the third. “This is most certainly a wall.”

“No,” says the fourth. “It’s a spear.”

So what in the world did they find? An elephant. The first man touched its trunk, the second its leg, the third its side, and the fourth its tusk. This is exactly what happens in a large group as well. Each person sees different pieces of the problem, but not the whole. 

Previously, I wrote about transforming knowledge into wisdom. There are three layers of knowing:

  • Knowledge: the accumulation of facts and information
  • Understanding: the integration of knowledge to see the whole
  • Wisdom: the judicious application of implicit and tacit knowledge in real-world situations

Innovation requires wisdom, but large groups get stuck in the knowledge. They have all the pieces but struggle to integrate them into the whole for understanding, which blocks them from wisdom. In small teams, each member is responsible for more and thus builds greater understanding of the whole, giving them the building blocks for wisdom. 

Small Teams Get Results

We tend to think more is better, but when it comes to innovation, it’s the opposite: less is more.

The proof is in the results. The Marine Corps’ problem I mentioned? With our 10-person team, we were able to create a solution. We developed a lightweight, semi-automated system to simultaneously secure and release cargo loads. It reduced load and unload times by 20 percent while reducing cargo damage and requiring minimal human involvement. This technology is now coming on the market for trucking,  nuclear waste transport, rail shipping, and aircraft lashing.

If you want to innovate—and do it as quickly and affordably as possible—you need a small, dedicated innovation team. 

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