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Does Size Matter in Teams?

November 28, 2012

This year’s Olympics saw rowing teams of eight, four and two. In handball teams of seven; in hockey 16 and in volleyball six. So should team size be dictated just by the task, or are there other factors to consider?

Team Size

In teams, is size really the most important factor?

It could be assumed that the larger the team the more productive they are as a whole but the opposite seems to be true.  Very often larger teams are in fact less efficient per capita. In rowing and in the workplace, overall performance is as dependent on coordination across the team as it is on the sheer effort of individual team membersStatistically the boat’s speed doesn’t increase in proportion to the number of oarsmen.

  • A rowing double is only 4% faster than a single
  • A rowing VIII is only 6% faster than a rowing IV, despite having twice the manpower.

This is known as the Ringlemann effect, the tendency for individual members of a group to become increasingly less productive as the size of their group increases, proven by Maximilien Ringlemann in 1913 when he observed people pulling less hard on a rope as more people were added to the group.

Over the last 50 years much research has been carried out to identify if there’s an optimum size for a work team, and whilst there’s no conclusive answer the number five occurs repeatedly.

  • Crisis response teams in the fire service typically range between three and seven, with five being optimal
  • Special forces patrols range between four and six
  • Harvard’s Richard Hackman and Neil Vidmar found that the optimum size for a team is 4.6
  • Joseph Pelrine, suggests the sizes five, 15, and 150 as being optimal sizes for social groups.
  • Jeff Bezos founder of Amazon has a “two-pizza” rule: If a team cannot be fed by two pizzas, it’s too large.

Benefits of smaller teams include ease of communication. With five in a team there will be ten paths of communication connecting all team members.  Increase the team size by just one to six and fifteen paths of communication are required for the team to interact. Too many communication paths results in delays and errors, consequently increasing timescales and raising costs.

Individuals feel more responsible in smaller teams, they have greater awareness of what their colleagues are working on and there’s greater transparency than in larger teams. This means that the team is better able to be self-governing, drawing less on the leader.

Smaller teams can quickly present a bottom-up perspective, better decisions can be taken as a group generating buy-in and once again taking some of the weight off the leader.

Four or five people can look at a problem from multiple perspectives, invariably turning an insurmountable obstacle into an engaging, shared challenge.  Increase the participants and a ‘design by committee’ mentality can creep in.  Eight people frequently find themselves in a deadlock situation over their decisions. It is said that King Charles I, the only British monarch ever to work with a council of eight members, made decisions that were so notoriously bad that he lost his head

Few leaders can effectively coach, mentor and manage more than five people and their output day to day.

Of course the danger of stating an optimum number is that it cannot account for variables such as task, location or knowledge required.  There will be exceptions but for the reasons set out above it’s wise to reflect on whether the teams in your organisation would communicate more effectively, be more efficient and be happier if they were closer to five in number.

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