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October 19th, 2016

What size teams should we aim for?

We have recently been involved in supporting a number of organisation design projects with our clients. Having done appraisals of customer needs, defined the culture they were aiming to embed, and optimised core business processes, the next key question was “what size teams should we aim for: what is a reasonable span of control for a line manager”?

shutterstock_174539219You will appreciate that views on the ideal team size have changed over time as thinking about corporate structure has evolved. For much of the last century, the traditional model, based on hierarchical principles, favoured a team of around six. This size reflected the direct correlation between multiple levels of management, detailed grading systems and team size. However, as most organisations have become flatter and grading systems moved to fewer, wider bands, teams have inevitably become larger. As a consequence, in recent years, the perceived ‘ideal’ team size has grown to anywhere between 15 and 25.

The drive towards flat, empowered, engaged organisations would lead organisation designers towards larger teams, with managers having wide spans of control, and a structure with fewer layers.

However, pitching organisation design around generic thinking is rightly being challenged, as workplaces, and hence structures, have become far more fluid. The reality is that teams, their functions and the context in which they operate vary hugely.

So instead of starting with notional benchmarks to drive organisation structure design, a more appropriate route should be to identify the operational environment and consider each situation before determining the ideal size and span of control. Factors that should be considered include:

  • What is the nature of the business? Teams delivering fast changing, highly discretionary services may need more line management input than their counterparts working in slower paced, more transactional operations
  • What is the culture of the organisation? The actual and desired levels of empowerment and engagement will be impacted directly by the number of levels of management. Decision making becomes increasingly lengthy and ownership diluted where there are more layers.
  • How spread out is the activity? If team members are spread over a number of different locations, it becomes difficult for managers to provide consistent support to individuals. Effort is required to maintain consistency and keep communications current with a bigger, less interactive team.
  • What is the regulatory environment in which people are working? Requirements for a formal structure with named post holders may place constraints on spans of control and require more specialised teams.
  • What is the level of experience, capability and personal style of the individual manager? A newly appointed line manager needs a supported learning environment, so a narrower span might be appropriate during their early development.
  • What is the skill level and attitudes of the employees? Highly skilled, well-motivated and self-sufficient employees tend to flourish in circumstances where managers have wider spans of control. Teams with a high level of turnover will, conversely, require closer supervision so a narrower span of control will be necessary.

Reaching high levels of teamwork

Finally, team performance is very sensitive to relationships among team members. For teams to reach a high level of teamwork, members need to trust each other, know how to work together, and have a shared sense of ownership for results. Large teams, because of the numbers of people, are unlikely to meet this and managers with wide spans of control will struggle to grow and develop the team as a unit and also to encourage those involved.


Rather than think about the ultimate ideal team size, it is better to think in terms of flexible ranges. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon famously coined the 2 Pizza rule: according to Bezos, the ideal is the “two pizza team:” if a team couldn’t be fed with two pizzas, it was too bigBut that, of course, depends upon the size of a pizza and how hungry people are as I know some teams where that would only mean two!

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