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Is Your Team Too Big, Too Small or Just Right?



Size Matters

When it comes to teams, size matters. We’ve worked with all sizes of teams over the past twelve years that we have had our doors open. That means lots and lots of teams, ranging from three members to 25. We have repeatedly found that once a team is over 12 members, it is highly unlikely that it is really a team. No, it is more of working group or likely a non-working group.

We have found that the sweet spot for team size is between five and ten. Why? With a team smaller than five you likely won’t have the necessary diverse representation of the organization at the table. With a team larger than ten (and max 12) you won’t be able to get the dialogue and debate needed. With that size people spend more time advocating for their opinion because they want to be heard, or reporting on status, rather inquiring about each other’s ideas. The right group size can foster the necessary rich dialogue that leads to discovering new possibilities, not just one person’s great idea.

Right Sizing

For some, getting the right team size isn’t an easy pill to swallow. Why?

Because, most often the team is too big. Leaders don’t want to reduce the size of their leadership team because:

  • 1. They have some strong performers below their direct reports and want their input. They’re are concerned they won’t get that input without those performers at the table.

  • 2. People in the organization want the ear of the leader, a chance to be heard, and will fight to keep themselves on the leadership team.

Neither of these are good reasons for keeping a leadership team too large. Both are a reflection of a different problem. Primarily, one related to lack of cascading communication.

Cascade Communication

Good leaders know that one of their primary jobs is cascading communication (Check out our H2 Cascade Communication to learn more) out to their teams and gather their team’s feedback and ideas to bring back to the leadership team. They also get the importance of getting the right rhythm of meetings so that both teams, the one she/he is a member of and the one she/he leads, are well connected. This type of cascading communication is a key discipline that resolves the team size issues.

Most people fight to be at the leadership table because they are concerned that they will not get the right information or have their concerns heard unless they are present. If that issue is clearly and effectively dealt with by the mechanism above, people are generally quite happy to let go of the leadership table and will focus on the work that needs to get done.

Repeated Anecdotal Proof

We have worked with a number of large teams. In each scenario we have had to work quite hard to convince the leader to reduce the size. However, in all cases, after a couple months and usually some additional coaching on cascading communication, not only have the leaders been happy and more productive, but so have the folks who were pulled off the team, as well as the organization in general.

A Specific Company Example

We worked with one team at a technical engineering company. The leader initially invited us out to work with his team of 25. When we asked if his team really had 25 team members, he stated that only eight of those 25 reported to him, but if he didn’t invite the rest he would be creating lots of political issues. We get that politics is a reality of most corporate cultures. So after much dialogue, he agreed to reduce the group to 18. However, when we showed up for the Two-Day Offsite, there were 21 at the table. Hmm, somehow he managed to slip them through the door.

Of course, we went forward and agreed that the best way to sell this leader was to let him discover the problem himself.

During our Two-Day Offsite with leadership teams we work through the principles of Pat Lencioni’s book, Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The first morning of our offsite is really designed to help people build trust and goodwill towards each other. The reason we do this is to create an atmosphere where it is possible to dive into dialogue and debate about the real-time strategic issues facing the team.

Of course, the logistics of building trust around the different styles of 21 people is challenging, but heck, we can do that. It’s not perfect, and it is unlikely that people will be willing to be real and vulnerable with that large of an audience, but it can be done.

That is not the real problem. No, that shows up once we dive into the business issues.

The Real Problem

Sure enough, as folks started discussing the team’s clarity around direction and what’s most important regarding goals, everyone wanted a chance to put in their two cents. No one took the time to ask any questions or clarify what someone else said, because that would take away from their time. At the end of the first day, we went to dinner with the team. The leader, over a glass of wine, said he thought the team was too big. Conversation around the table revealed that others were frustrated and wanted something different as well.

The next day we brought up the idea of shifting the team size. After some discussion, the group agreed the current size wasn’t satisfying and that a smaller group would be better. The problem: no one thought they should be the one to go off.

So we asked why they didn’t want to leave? What came out was that often what got said at the leadership level rarely got cascaded down. Meetings throughout the organization most often consisted of reporting in on status and very little time was spent dialoguing or discussing.

The Solution

We introduced our ideas about meeting structure and rhythm. We talked about ways to improve the meeting structures and the importance of building in time for debate, and specifically clarifying what would be cascaded and what would not.

After this discussion, and with the agreement that the new team structures would use both the meeting model and cascading communication tools, the team was ready to agree to let the leader decide on who was the right fit for the leadership team. He went with his eight direct reports, plus his HR person and him, so team size was 10.

Some Tweaking

It didn’t work perfectly. We needed a few more visits to do some tweaking.

After our first return visit, we had a great meeting with the team. They really dove in and had lots of healthy conflict and got to some key decisions. However, we learned later that while they loved their own meetings they had not invested that same effort into their meetings with their own direct reports. So there were some unhappy folks.

Then we had a virtual half-day session with the leadership team to address this problem. This resulted in the company investing in rolling out the team model and ensuring leaders were trained in creating a similar team commitment to their direct reports.

Finally, during the second on-site meeting, we learned that the next level was bought in to the new smaller leadership team size. People liked that the leadership team was not only more clear and defined but that they did not have to be there in person to be informed or give feedback.

Good News

The leader has since moved on to another technical engineering company and right away reduced his team size. He is now able to communicate the value of a smaller sized leadership team and get the buy in quickly. Though when he invited us in to kick-off with his new team, he told us there were be 18 in the room. Just when we were ready to challenge him about his plan – he laughed and said, “Got you!” Indeed, he had reduced this group to eight!

Susan Clarke and CrisMarie Campbell are Coaches, Consultants, and Speakers at thrive! inc. (www.thriveinc.com) They help business leaders and their teams use the energy of conflict, rather than – avoid or defuse it – to get to creative, innovative, profitable business results. You can see their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It! On YouTube. They would be happy to coach you, consult with your team, or to speak at your next event. Contact them at thrive@thriveinc.com


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