For Big Ideas, Your Team Should Be Smaller

There are some scenarios where bigger is definitely better: when you need to build and run the Large Hadron Collider, for instance. But some new research questions whether that's really the case in most instances. If you're looking for innovation especially, it helps not to have too many cooks in the kitchen.

That's according to sociologists at the University of Chicago who've just published a study in Nature about how teams of scientists produce results and make discoveries. In essence, the researchers point out that the larger a team, the more conservative its products are going to be. "Bigger teams are always searching the immediate past, always building on yesterday's hits," said co-author James Evans in a press release. "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."

The research may be about scientific discovery, but it's widely applicable in the working world. Most businesses value (or claim to value) truly original thinking. It stands to reason that the less consensus-building a team has to do, the more innovative the end results are. That's not to say there's no value in cooperation — or in large groups working together. As Evans frames it, the framework is all about how you optimize failure.

"Most things are going to fail, or are not going to push the needle within a field," he said. "If you want to do discovery, you have to gamble."