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How Big Should Your Teams Be?

In a world overflowing with books on team dynamics, Fran Cormack challenges conventional wisdom and sheds light on the elusive quest for successful teamwork.

A quick search for "Teams" on Amazon brings back in excess of 80,000 results. From esteemed thinkers such as Belbin (of Belbin’s Nine Team roles fame), with “The Management of Teams” in 1981, to Katzenbach, with the “Wisdom of Teams” in the 1990s to more recent classics such as Lencioni’s “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”.

With so much great literature available, more books than we could even read in our lifetime, we should be experts in how to create strong teams. So why aren’t we?

Why are so many organisations still getting it all wrong? Why do we have teams lambasted for not performing? Why are we surprised when we just throw a bunch of individuals together and wonder why they act as a group and not a team? Maybe leaders haven't yet got the distinction between the two correct. A quick primer; people working on disparate goals and objectives are not a team, they are a group. A team consists of people working together, towards a common goal. With shared values.

Pizza For All

But how big should these teams be? Unlike football (11), rugby (15), and basketball (5), in business we don’t have a template for the right size team. So what should we do? If you like pizza, and who doesn’t, you could take a leaf out of Jeff Bezos' book and align to the “two pizza rule”, whereby each of your teams can be fed by said number of pizzas. If you like pizza as much as I do you may not want to be on that particular team.

How about we create large teams then? It makes sense right, double the number of people in your team, double the throughput. Is this not the way we were taught to deliver increased scope on projects, by just throwing people at the problem. I am not going to drag out the cliche of nine women having a baby in one month (damn, I just did), but for many years, since Frederick Brooks wrote his classic “The Mythical Man-Month”, it is widely accepted that adding people to a team will slow you down, not speed you up.

“Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later,” - The Mythical Man-Month, Brooks, 1975

Lines of communication

As you add more people into your team, the lines of communication rise exponentially. And as our organisational systems are growing ever more complex, with remote working, and teams based in geographically distributed locations now accepted as standard, having clear communications between everyone on the team is vital. This is why small teams rule in most progressive organisations now.

The Sweet Spot

In my experience, the sweet spot is a team that has between five and seven people. This still leaves you with a maximum of 21 lines of communication but this is much easier to manage than if you have teams in double figures and subsequently up to 100 lines of communication. Small teams collaborate better as it is easier for them to keep in sync. They are quicker to get to a decision. Fewer opinions, fewer discussions. Everybody has a voice, and there is always time for every voice to be heard. Meetings have fewer bystanders. There is high shared accountability.

In the agile world, small teams are better at swarming around the collective goal. It is less likely that component, or specialist teams will start to be created. Teams finish more, by starting less. With fewer people in the team, there is less temptation to start an overwhelming amount of work in progress (WIP). We all know that limiting WIP is key to the flow of value through the system. And value flowing through to the right people is the sole reason we create teams in the first place, isn’t it?

What Do You Think?

What has been your experience when working with teams? What would be your “sweet spot” in terms of team size? How many pizzas would you need to satisfy everyone?

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