Why Size Matters For a Working Team
It’s common to hear that a large team of people tackle a complex project. But it’s actually small teams that do more innovative work.
That’s the conclusion of a study published in the journal Nature and conducted by researchers in the University of Chicago in the US. The researchers, Lingfei Wu, Dashun Wang and James A. Evans, analysed more than 65 million papers, patents and software projects and found that smaller teams produce much more disruptive and innovative research than large teams, which more often develop and consolidate existing knowledge.
Time for Change
Though both large and small teams are needed for innovation and scientific development, the findings suggest that team formation should be looked at differently.
“Big teams are almost always more conservative. The work they produce is like blockbuster sequels; very reactive and low-risk,” says study co-author James Evans, professor of sociology, director of the Knowledge Lab at the University of Chicago and a leading scholar in the quantitative study of how ideas and technologies emerge. He says 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.”
For the study, the research team collected 44 million articles and more than 600 million citations from the Web of Science database, five million patents from the US Patent and Trademark Office, and 16 million software projects from the Github platform. The team then computationally assessed each individual work in this massive dataset for how much it disrupted versus developed its field of science or technology.
“Intuitively, a disruptive paper is like the moon during the lunar eclipse; it overshadows the sun—the idea it builds upon—and redirects all future attention to itself,” says study co-author Lingfei Wu, a postdoctoral researcher with the University of Chicago and Knowledge Lab. “The fact that most of the future works only cite the focal paper and not its references is evidence for the ‘novelty’ of the focal paper. Therefore, we can use this measure, originally proposed by Funk and Owen-Smith, as a proxy for the creation of new directions in the history of science and technology.”
Across papers, patents and software products, disruption dramatically declined with the addition of each additional team member. The same relationship appeared when the authors controlled for publication year, topic or author, or tested subsets of data, such as Nobel Prize-winning articles. Even review articles, which simply aggregate the findings of previous publications, are more disruptive when authored by fewer individuals, the study found.
Where the difference lies
According to the study, the main driver of the difference in disruption between large and small teams appeared to be how each treats the history of their field. Larger teams were more likely to cite more recent, highly cited research in their work, building upon past successes and acknowledging problems already in their field's zeitgeist. By contrast, smaller teams more often cited older, less popular ideas, a deeper and wider information search that creates new directions in science and technology.
“Small teams and large teams are different in nature,” Wu says. “Small teams remember forgotten ideas, ask questions and create new directions, whereas large teams chase hotspots and forget less popular ideas, answer questions and stabilize established paradigms.”