What is the optimum size of team or group you can manage?

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How big should a team be? Is there a right size that can be managed effectively or a recommended approach that works for organisations?

To come up with an answer we need to look at what the organisation does and where it is in its lifecycle to come up with a model that works in its particular situation.

The starting point is to look at effectiveness.

The military has a history of requiring teams to effective – lethally so.

The smallest unit in the Roman army had 8 soldiers led by an officer and with two support troops.

The equivalent in a modern army is a squad, with 7 to 12 soldiers, although a smaller sub-team known as a fireteam with 4 or fewer members is the smallest cohesive unit.

The word cohesive is important here – as the team needs to work together and be cohesive to be effective.

Success as a whole depends on the coordinated use of cohesive teams and this is as true in military operations as it is in business or the public sector.

The next thing to look at is management

We sometimes think that teams work for their managers – a good manager can get better performance out of the team.

An alternative view is that people in cohesive and well performing teams are more likely to work to support each other and avoid failing in their role than they are to please a manager.

A manager’s role, in that case, may be more about coaching and helping a team to bond than about telling them what to do and how to do it.

That suggests that hierarchy is necessary to scale how people work.

Each team that actually does something should have between 4 and 8 people.

Fewer than that may mean they don’t have all the skills they need to be effective, while more than that means coordination becomes a problem.

Above the coal face – where things are done – we need structures that enable coordination and communication.

Technology can help here – but face to face communication can help in a way that emails and phone calls can’t.

The size of management groups will therefore depend on how much time leaders have to talk and meet with their team. If they spend every day communicating, then they can have more direct reports.

They might also want to do some work, however, and perhaps having more than 7 or so people looking for time with them will eat into that.

Finally, we should consider the phase of growth the company is in.

George Bradt, the co-author of First-Time Leader, writing in Forbes describes how to think about teams during different growth phases.

He shares the story of Devanshi Garg and the approach taken by Icreon Tech when entering the U.S.

In the beginning, Garg suggests, we need a team made up of people that think like founders – partners who can do many things, adapt to situations and solve client problems.

Later, as we grow to more than 10 people, we need to think of our company as an extended family. We know most people and how they work.

Over 30 people, we need hierarchy – developing leaders and supporting them with effective management systems.

In the end is there a magic number?

I’d go with Michael Lopp’s formula. Seven plus or minus three.

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