The question of group size
With the world’s issues and complexity rising, the number of people who need to collaborate to address an issue gets bigger and bigger. The higher the number of people involved, the more perspectives contributed to the project – but now communication and coordination become more challenging with more relationships to manage.
There are two factors pulling in opposite directions:
- Bigger groups provide more diverse perspectives. Groups that had a broader pool of backgrounds and experiences came up with more innovative solutions to problems.
- Smaller groups allow for more intimate communication and trust-building which can improve collaboration and team performance.
What does research say about the best way of forming groups?
The Case for Smaller Groups
Smaller groups of 5-12 people make it easier to build relationships and have focused discussions. According to psychology research, the ideal size for a task group is between 5-9 people. Beyond that, coordination issues multiply and there are fewer opportunities for each member to contribute.
This is one reason why video conferences become less productive after about 4-5 participants. It’s harder to have an inclusive discussion or read social cues from more faces on the screen.
Having smaller teams work in cycles with regular touchpoints helps keep groups aligned while avoiding the pitfalls of scale.
The Case for Broader Inputs
While smaller circles should be the primary work unit, it’s still important to incorporate diverse perspectives in the broader organization. Larger companies that connect people across different departments, roles, and backgrounds see more innovation and better decisions.
Rather than adding more people to a team, there are two effective ways to get wider input:
- Build processes to gather feedback from different groups and individuals more regularly. Don’t just rely on links between circles.
- Bring in outside experts and advisors to offer fresh perspectives and challenge assumptions. Rotate who these advisors are rather than going to the same people.
- Use collaborative technology to connect circles and capture insights from many people asynchronously across distances.
Implications for Sociocracy
Sociocracy addresses this through its “circle structure.” By breaking larger groups into semi-autonomous circles of 5-12 people, teams get the benefit of diversity of perspectives as well as focused collaboration in smaller groups. Clear roles and decision-making protocols coordinate the efforts between circles.
However, the system of linking (where one or two people are part of two groups so information can flow between them) is good for the bare minimum of feedback.
But it’s important to make a more intentional effort to get feedback from a number of groups and individuals more often. So don’t only rely on your links but design more feedback mechanisms into your decision processes.