Working in Small Teams

What is the right size for your team? Is your organization too flat and the team too big? Can your company become too big?

Vladimir Lenin once said

“Quantity has a quality all its own.”

He was talking about guns and tanks, of course, but it holds true for people too. Adding somebody to a team doesn’t just increment the complexity  and communication within that team by 1, it increases it by the size of the team plus one. For example, if there are two people working together, there is 1 path for communication. Three people, 3 paths (an increase of 2). Four people, 6 ways to communicate (and mis-communicate). Five people, 10 ways and so on.

One More Makes All the Difference

By adding one more person, pretty soon the number of relationships to keep track of becomes very crowded. One of the principle of Scouting laid down by it’s founder was “working in small groups”. He knew from his previous experience that both adults and youth work best in groups of about eight or so.

Years later research came up with the “seven plus or minus two rule“*, which tells us that our brains can hold about seven pieces of information, or deal with seven people (give or take) at the same time. More than that, and we start to lose track of what’s going on.

In Real Life

As a Scout leader I had the unique opportunity to observe the affect of adding or removing and individual Scout to or from a patrol. Just by changing one person the dynamic of the group changed entirely. An energetic, disruptive kid would make the patrol energetic too. Not always a bad thing mind you.

Now, in my work as a consultant I work with many executive teams that come in different sizes and configurations. I’ve noticed that when there are three or fewer people in the room the interaction, conversation, challenging ideas just don’t take off with any energy. At nine or more it starts to break down again. People don’t get heard, one or two people  dominate the conversation, there’s just too much going on to capture it all in a meaningful way. The ideal number of thinking, contributing, energetic people in a room has an upper and a lower limit.

Your Actions

Are your teams the “right” size for your organization? Are you trying to get too much done by stuffing as many people into the room as possible, and therefore slowing things down and falling into the trap of a false economy? Or are you trying to “keep people focused” by making your team too small, and then losing out by excluding people them instead of getting them engaged and switched on?

*Later research showed that short-term memory capacity is probably closer to four “chunks” rather than seven.

Bernie works as a leadership and business coach, consultant, and facilitator. He believes there are simple things outstanding leaders do well, and that not to do anything about bad leadership once you know about it is abuse. Check out what he does with

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