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Why big teams like Apple develop and little ones like OnePlus disrupt

A study published this week on the size of teams in science and technology showed how one disrupts while the other tends to develop. I’m using Apple and OnePlus to extrapolate because Apple was, for a while, a disruptor. Now they’re not exactly the same company they were a decade ago – they still disrupt the industry, sometimes, but they’re far more apt to develop what’s already successful. OnePlus, on the other hand, is in a place where they’ve disrupted the market, recently, and several times over.

The study we’re looking at today was published in the scientific journal Nature and authored by Lingfei Wu, Dashun Wang, and James A. Evans. Their study seeks out reasoning behind what they call “one of the most universal trends in science and technology today.” That trend is “the growth of large teams in all areas, as solitary researchers and small teams diminish in prevalence.”

Back in 2010

Think about the smartphone industry. When I started covering news about smartphones, it was 2010, three years after the release of the iPhone, two years after the first Android phone hit the market. When I started, we’d report on every single smartphone released by every brand – everything running Android was hot.

Since then, the industry’s shifted to just a few brands, each with their hero phone. Where Samsung used to release as many phones as there were touchscreen displays available to put in a phone, now they’ve got their Galaxy S, their Galaxy Note, and a few lesser Galaxy phones for release in Asia and developing countries.

Brands petered out, big brands became bigger, and all but gone is the major change between generations of device – and between smartphones in general. One display and cameras on a candybar-style rectangle – that is every single smartphone on the market today (more or less).

Starting in the last year or year and a half, brands in China started revving their engines, readying a race that’s making the speed of innovation in smartphones in the USA look positively wimpy. One of the brands that’s emerged from this fray is OnePlus. As of the year 2017, the number of people employed by OnePlus was 776 (according to the OnePlus full financial year 2017 report).

The Study: Big and Little

The study we’re looking at today is about all sorts of teams, in both technology and science. This study took into account “more than 65 million papers, patents, and software products that span the period 1954-2014.”

“Across this period smaller teams have tended to disrupt science and technology with new ideas and opportunities, whereas larger teams have tended to develop existing ones,” says the study. The study isn’t focusing exclusively on brands making hardware – but for brands like Apple and OnePlus, and the consumer tech industry in general, the shoe seems to fit.

We report on brands like Apple, Samsung, and Amazon a lot. Almost any product they create is newsworthy, and any announcement they make is worth some analysis. That’s true even though they rarely make products that disrupt the industry – beyond their first editions, anyway.

“Work from larger teams builds on more-recent and popular developments, and attention to their work comes immediately,” says the study.

The bigger your team, the more you’ve got riding on the outcome of any project. The more people in the mix, the more you’re apt to work with what’s already proven.

Big teams don’t take big chances as much as little teams. Little teams have less to lose, and a lot more potential to grow as a result of disruption.

As the study says: “By contrast, contributions by smaller teams search more deeply into the past, are viewed as disruptive to science and technology and succeed further into the future—if at all,” says the study.

OnePlus has had their fair share of missteps – most of them made public mainly because of their relative rocket to popularity as a smartphone-selling-brand. They’ve made a major competitor of a company in a very short amount of time.

Look at what OnePlus did. They’ve beat Samsung and Apple in India. They’ve succeeded in making some of the best smartphones in the market at any given time in the last couple of years.

That same OnePlus report cited above suggests OnePlus had a revenue of $1.4-billion in their financial year 2017. This is a brand that only started in December of the year 2013!

Innovation or Evolution

If this study’s findings also hold true for our subject matter, in order to continue to keep an industry that’s relevant and progressive, we need to have teams both large and small. “These results demonstrate that both small and large teams are essential to a flourishing ecology of science and technology, and suggest that, to achieve this, science policies should aim to support a diversity of team sizes.”

REMEMBER THIS: Apple contends on innovation: “New is easy, right is hard.”

Every time Apple holds an event to reveal their latest hardware, I see comments about how the company isn’t innovative. Or about how all the things they see presented by Apple aren’t anything they haven’t seen before. The big-team development was expressed with the massive growth of the company in the past decade. In 2007, Apple’s revenue for the full year was approximately $24.5-billion, and the company employed approximately 21,600 employees.

Apple’s financial year 2018 revenue was $265-billion, and they reported having approximately 132,000 employees (according to their Apple 10-K Report FY2018).

What’ll happen when OnePlus reaches Apple’s current size? Will they continue making smartphones with major hardware changes each new year? Or will they redefine the way they progress, developing the hardware they’ve got that’s been proven to work before?

If you want major disruption, look to the small team. Small brands make big moves. They don’t always win right out the gate, but they’ve got the potential to make change happen.

For more information on this topic, head on over to the research paper “Large teams develop and small teams disrupt science and technology” in Nature with DOI:10.1038/s41586-019-0941-9 as published on February 13th, 2019. This paper was authored by Lingfei Wu, Dashun Wang, and James A. Evans, and is filed under “phase transitions and critical phenomena.”

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