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Why big is not always better when it comes to teamwork: Study

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You have definitely heard the phrase “there is strength in numbers” at least once in your life. Particularly when it comes to churning out new work projects in teams, it is commonly believed that working in bigger groups gets the job done better.

But do bigger teams really produce more productive results? Not necessarily, a new analysis paper published by Nature revealed.

Authored by researchers from University of Chicago (Lingfei Wu and James Evans) and Northwestern University (Dashun Wang), according to UChicago Newsthe study found:

Smaller teams were far more likely to introduce new ideas to science and technology, while larger teams more often developed and consolidated existing knowledge.

In fact after examining more than 65 million papers, patents and software projects in the US between 1954 to 2014, the study found that disruption “dramatically declined” whenever a new team member was added, across papers, patents and software projects.

Further, even review articles which aggregate findings were more disruptive when they had fewer authors.

James Evans, co-author of the study, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Knowledge Lab at UChicago, said:

Big teams are almost always more conservative. The work they produce is like blockbuster sequels; very reactive and low-risk.

He elaborated: “Bigger teams are always searching the immediate past, always building on yesterday’s hits. Whereas the small teams, they do weird stuff—they’re reaching further into the past, and it takes longer for others to understand and appreciate the potential of what they are doing.”

Based on the research, the main reason for the difference in disruption between small and big teams seemed to be how they each treated the history of their field.

  • Small teams were more inclined to citing “older, less popular ideas”, thus creating new directions in the fields of science and technology.
  • On the contrary, bigger teams were more likely to cite more recent, commonly cited research building upon past successes and challenges.

Lingfei Wu, co-author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher with the University of Chicago and Knowledge Lab, said: “Small teams and large teams are different in nature.

“Small teams remember forgotten ideas, ask questions and create new directions, whereas large teams chase hotspots and forget less popular ideas, answer questions and stabilise established paradigms.”

That said, the analysis highlighted that both types of teams – whether big or small – play important roles when it comes to research. More specifically, the smaller teams generate new and promising insights, which the bigger teams rapidly develop and refine.

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