Does (Team) Size Really Matter?

One of the most frequent questions clients ask us is “what is the ideal size for a cohesive team.”

Our answer? Before even considering ideal team size, we have to take into account the primary factors that are critical to a team’s ultimate cohesion, productivity and health.

  1. For what purpose is the team mobilized?

Why do we exist? What goals do we have for which time period? How will we know we have succeeded?

A clear, galvanizing purpose that transcends individual objectives is essential for a team to perform well. High performing teams stay very focused on what it is they must achieve together, placing the team’s ultimate success above individual egos or accomplishments.

  1. What are the individual contributions of each member?

Each and every individual member of a team should understand the contribution they make: what makes them important to this team?

Regardless of what each individual brings (unique or expert skillets, personal style or fit, organizational view, or representative functional ideas), it is essential for the team to discuss the contributions of each person, and why they matter to the success of the team.

  1. Has the team had a good start?

Oftentimes, companies form teams based on structure (i.e. this group of people is a team because they comprise the Finance Department) when in reality, teams do better when they come together for a specific outcome in a specific time frame. Functional groups along hierarchical lines do matter, but are perhaps best considered “work groups,” that can perform regularly day-to-day without the investment and process required for truly high performance teaming.

Great teams are more than workgroups: they are founded upon a strong sense of mutual commitment, creating synergy and generating collective performance greater than the sum of the individual members’ performance. Great teams require practice – they have to work at being great by dedicating time to defining how they want to “be” together, getting to know one another as individuals, agreeing to goals and norms for interaction, etc. They stay attuned to their team health over time, checking in on it regularly by providing candid feedback to one another, revisiting goals and priorities, and integrating new members thoughtfully.

  1. What is the role for the team leader?

This is a subject that has been widely debated and researched, with tested models ranging from the classic hierarchical “command and control” leader, to self-directed teams with all shared work and no formal leader. In my experience, any model canwork, as long as there is clarity and purpose to the role the leader will play.

Is he or she… A facilitator of process? Accountable for contributing tasks towards the whole? Responsible for evaluating team member performance? Experienced in managing other teams well? Able to set agendas and run meetings efficiently?

With these questions answered, we can then consider team size.

Copious research confirms that productivity is highest for teams with four to twelve members. Teams that are smaller than four end up functioning more like partners, without the desired synergistic lift of team cohesion (innovation, feedback, creativity, productivity). On the other hand, teams larger than twelve become unwieldy in terms of communication logistics, social loafing and breakdowns into sub-teams. Based on my own experience working with hundreds of teams over the last 30 years, I think the sweet spot is about 6-10 members, with a margin on either end for fluctuation.

The real problem with teams larger than twelve is largely pragmatic: involving more people requires more time for dialogue. For example, in order for each member of a twelve-person team to verbally contribute in an hour-long meeting, each person would tap out at five minutes of airtime, meaning that each member would be passively listening for 55 minutes.

Very few provocative, creative and inspired ideas towards problem solving can be meaningfully explained in five minutes. Consequently, these larger teams tend to break down quickly into high-verbal contributors and low-verbal contributors, limiting the ability of the group to grow collective intelligence through fully accessing the ideas and capabilities of each member. To solve this issue, meetings are frequently held after the team meeting, in which sub-groups exchange ideas and wrestle with the team’s issues

Net-Net: Size does matter when trying to create impactful teams. But, size is secondary to establishing a clear purpose, individual contribution, ongoing team-focused investment and a clear mechanism for team leadership.

Jim Morris