Work in small teams or large teams?

Written by Shalique M.S

With the advent of better connectivity without the boundaries of language or geography, people often tend to collaborate in work or outside, even to follow their passion for music, travel etc. When you open your phone to find out a webinar or a meetup happening somewhere related to your interest, you unknowingly become part of a large group. Where does this take you? This has always left me perplexed at many points in life. What about you? Well, the recent research by a team from the University of Chicago that came out in Nature this month has the answer we were looking for!

One of the recent works funded by the National Science Foundation, in fact, proved what Einstein once predicted in 1916, that his theory of relativity predicts that gravitational waves exist. This has been observed by one of the most precise detectors on the planet, LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) in spread across Washington DC and Louisiana. Physicists Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for directly detecting gravitational waves. Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space and time caused by the collision of two back holes, the collision between ultra-dense neutron stars or exploding stars. These are highly energetic cosmic cataclysms and generate gravitational waves which distort the tough and stiff fabric of space and time. Their team had around 1000 scientists from all over the world to assist them! The existence of such large teams reflects the fundamental shift in the way research or in fact any contemporary project is happening in the world.

LIGO facility in Hanford-Washington

But how do small and large teams differ in terms of performance? Lingfei Wu, Dashun Wang & James A. Evans from the University of Chicago examined 65 million peer-reviewed papers, patents, software projects from 1954-2014 and came up with some very interesting observations. There is a decline reported in the number of solitary researchers and it is cross-disciplinary, cross geographical research that is more trending.

They found that work from larger teams was mostly related to extending the recent works. However, contributions by smaller teams were mostly found to be rooted in the past works and were more disruptive. Smaller teams tend to think out of the box than larger teams do. The papers they examined thus showed that small teams were more disruptive in their work while large teams were known for developing the work.

Experimental research shows that the same individuals in large groups think and act differently. It may be due to peer pressure, groupthink etc. They were found to generate fewer ideas, recollect lesser information and neutralize each other’s opinion. Hence, the group aligns to more structured thinking that stifles innovation many a time. When it comes to business, large teams tend to work on markets with established potential while small teams tend to work more on innovative ways of getting an untapped market. So how do we build our team? Well, if the problem requires creativity, make it small. However, when the solution is more structured and requires just execution, it is better to go for large teams.


Wu, L., Wang, D., & Evans, J. A. (2019). Large teams develop and small teams disrupt science and technology. Nature, 1.


About the author

Shalique M.S

Research Scholar, IIM Kozhikode

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