The Diminishing Returns on Growing Groups

I first had the idea while working on my Master’s design thesis, because it wasn’t actually my thesis, but ours. We had the opportunity to work in pairs on one thesis and, having just studied all about co-creation, collaboration and all that fun, creative stuff, it felt appropriate.

While working through it, we thought about what it would be like to have a third person. Most of the projects our class worked on to-date involved much larger project groups, so a two-person team felt small—more like a “group” than a group.

When considering an additional team member, that third person felt like a daunting proposal. We realized that even though we would potentially be able to do the ever-in-demand even more, it would also increase the amount of time we spent planning and confirming. Our nimble group of two would suddenly have a third set of ideas to suggest and expectations to manage. Not to mention the group dynamics of it all. The idea of getting more done didn’t sound so appealing.

We were already getting a lot done. We were easily able to split our time between events (though not preferable, it was possible). We could still provide counterpoints to each other’s ideas and help keep one another on task and motivated when the grueling mid-project doldrums were at their worst. Other related details were simplified, too, like scheduling. There was no doubt things were getting done because there was no opportunity for confusion—no “he said, she said.” It was efficient and effective.



Diminishing Returns Blog Post Illustrations-01From an analytical standpoint, let us consider the work required by a project to be one hundred percent. Let us also assume that this is the maximum capacity of work one person can do, and that all people are equally capable. Then, one person could work full-time and complete the project perfectly on time.

Assuming the project requires a constant level of effort, adding one more person to that group doubles the capacity of work that can be done thus cutting the individual workload to 50 percent. Therefore when comparing a one-person team to a two-person team there is a change in workload of 50 percent.

Still assuming all constants still hold true and that the work is divided evenly, adding a third person would mean that each person is performing 33.3 percent of the workload. That is a mere 16.7 percent change from a two person team.

When comparing those two changes,Diminishing Returns Blog Post Illustrations-02 adding a third person is a 33.3 percent less beneficial (the difference between adding one to make a two-person team or a three-person team). That’s a significant drop in benefit.

One could also argue that the symbiotic relationship of people working creates benefits in quality and speed that add up to more than the simple sum of their individual workload. You may also say that the additional time planning and managing expectations may balance that out. Either way, more people means more management, more interpersonal dynamics and less opportunity for benefits via symbiosis. Therefore it’s still easy to see that the challenges that come with growing a team quickly outweigh the benefits.

While I understand the required workload of a project is not a constant, there also isn’t a unit for measuring the difficulty of a project’s work requirements over time. Diminishing Returns Blog Post Illustrations-03Of course, we also can’t assume all people are equal in their abilities, we simply have to compare hours. And when there’s a deadline, those hours are finite.

Scaling a team isn’t always the best solution. For it to be effective, the team must also have the skills necessary to carry a single project through to completion (not to mention the mutual respect to keep from gouging one another’s eyes out).Diminishing Returns Blog Post Illustrations-04