What’s the right size for a team? The answer would be simple if there were an optimal size, but there’s not. However, in the view of James Kerr, a good rule of thumb is to have a role for every person and a person for every role. If team members need to play more than one role, that’s fine. If you’re going to get the size wrong, better to make the team too small than too large.
That makes sense since teams that are too large face potential problems. Team members have difficulty reaching a shared understanding of problems or situations. It’s not easy for them to get to know and trust each other and to understand each other’s roles and responsibilities.
When certain team members tend to dominate in discussions and meetings, true collaboration is difficult to achieve. Wharton management professor Katherine J. Klein once observed, “There is a sense that as a team gets larger, there is a tendency for social loafing, where someone gets to slide, to hide.”
And then there’s the matter of communication, a challenge in the best of cases. Johanna Rothman points out that the number of communication paths in a team follows the formula:
In this formula, N is the number of people on the team. So do the math. What this formula says is that a four-person team has six communication paths, which Rothman describes as tolerable. But a team of eight has twentry-four paths, a nine-person team has thirty-six paths, and a ten-person team has forty-five paths. With these large team sizes, it’s a good idea to have the team divide into smaller sub-teams.
Numerous other factors affect optimum team size, such as the reason for the team, the roles team members need to play, the functions and goals of the team, and the amount of interconnectivity necessary for optimal team performance.
But team size is not the only issue that influences team effectiveness. Wharton management professor Jennifer S. Mueller highlights two other issues that affect team effectiveness. The first issue is the type of task the team will engage in and the degree of coordination required among the team members.
The second issue is the team composition, and in particular, the skills needed to accomplish the task, which “would include everything from work style to personal style to knowledge base and making sure that they are appropriate to the task."
Still, flexibility may be the key. Jurgen Appelo, who has explored the views of several gurus on the matter of team size, emphasizes that the optimum team size depends on the people and their environment. Appelo's advice: “When you need to structure a big project, don’t impose a 'preferred' team size on people just because it is written in a book. Try to allow self-organization to do its job and let the people (within their real environment) figure out what their optimum is.”
Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.