The Quirks of Smallness

While the reason for small boards’ advantage hasn’t been pinned down, the consensus is that a board’s smallness makes for more involved conversations and quicker decision making. The Journal points to Apple’s board as embodying this fleetness. Earlier this year, one prospective boardmember met all eight of the company’s directors over the course of weeks—a process that might take months at another company. According to the Journal, someone familiar with Apple said that there's a belief that “eye contact and candor change” the moment a board has more than 10 members on it.

The priority of smallness seems to be key in building a board that can make smart decisions quickly—and this is echoed in research done on the optimal size of teams, too.

A writer for Fortune magazine was bold enough to suggest in 2006 that there is an “optimal” number for a group: 4.6. Aside from the obvious logistical problem of determining whether to include the arms or the legs of that marginal six-tenths of a person, sticking to a cut-and-dried number of people for all groups would be absurd, given the variety of projects out there. That said, smallness generally appears to be a trusty organizing principle.

People who study team dynamics are fond of referring to something called the Ringelmann effect. Named for its discoverer (whose biography remains somewhat unclear), the effect was originally observed when recording the force exerted on a rope being pulled by groups of various sizes. Ringelmann noticed that after the fifth person was added to the effort, the average force exerted by each member of the group declined. This notion of diminishing returns suggested that groups become less efficient the bigger they get.

“After the fifth person, you look for cliques,” Wharton professor Jennifer Mueller is quoted as saying in a Knowledge@Wharton post. Many researchers agree that size probably shouldn’t be the first priority in arranging a team, but that it nonetheless plays an important role. Mueller has studied the Ringelmann effect in the workplace, bringing a conclusion about rope-pulling out of the realm of metaphor. She sought to understand why the effect appeared among groups of knowledge workers, and found that even though large groups have richer human resources, they fail to make people feel like they’re being supported. In other words, when a group got too big, its members felt like they were on their own. 

At the end of her study, Mueller notes her field’s “obsession with finding the ‘optimal’ team size,” which she believes has led to little in the way of understanding group dynamics—different projects simply demand different group sizes.

Earlier this month, my colleague Alexis Madrigal wrote about the calculated rise of Blue Bottle Coffee, whose founder has, in scaling the company from a farmer's market stand to a national brand, taken pains to make sure his coffee's soul wasn't lost in the process. Mindfully and patiently preserving a product's quality during a period of rapid, venture-capital-backed growth, Madrigal concludes, can allow a company to fend off a case of the bends. But that's not easy, and many companies might find that the best way to hold onto their initial uniqueness is to not get so big in the first place.

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Joe Pinsker is an assistant editor at The Atlantic. He has written for Rolling StoneForbes, and Salon.

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