Optimize Team Size

Kachina Shaw
Slide Show

Five Ways to Scale Agile for the Enterprise

Is your team failing in one or more crucial aspects? Perhaps it is too small. More likely, it is too large. And that can be fixed.

Stanford Professor and straight shooter Bob Sutton recently took a look at how remembering a few truths about team size can go a long way in rectifying common problems. His Work Matters blog post, “Why Big Teams Suck: Seven (Plus or Minus Two) Is the Magical Number Once Again,” takes a tour through a list of research points that have shed light on the ideal team size for productivity over the last several decades. Unfortunately, it’s a simple idea that many of us keep forgetting.

Teams and groups have a tendency to grow and grow some more, quickly reaching a point at which too much time must be devoted by every member to handling interpersonal relations with everyone else, and endlessly handing off work. To scale a giant team back, one rule of thumb to follow is that seven is a nice manageable number of team members; you can remember this number by recalling that most people can generally hold seven (plus or minus two) numbers in short-term memory. Or you could go with a nice round four-member team, as the U.S. military often does, having determined that larger groups erode focus and effectiveness.

Sutton’s examples of team-size adjustment come from tech and health care; simple adjustments to how many were grouped in teams made measureable improvements in each case. It wasn’t about who was on the team, it was about how many were on the team. Writes Sutton:


The first question I ask when a team reports they are locked in dysfunctional conflict, suffering from indifference, making bad decisions, or missing deadlines -- or all of the above -- is “how big is it?” If the answer is more than five or six members, especially more than ten, some savvy subtraction or division can create striking improvements.

Agile or scrum development tries to adhere to the smaller-is-better approach, and often models the benefits for other company team structures. A post on Illustrated Agile cites the “Ringelmann effect,” which basically means again that individual performance diminishes as team size increases. The reasons given are slightly different from Sutton’s, but the effect is the same. Keep your team lean, the post continues, by vigilantly monitoring team sizes as they change, making sure a team has a well-defined goal for motivation, and learning what the buzz of an effective team “sounds” like. It’s a subtle instruction, but “if the team begins to grow quieter than usual, they may be under the influence of the Ringelmann effect…”

And if all of that is too hard to remember, or too easy to forget, follow the two-pizza rule: Many a source cites the perhaps apocryphal declaration by Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos that if a team couldn’t be fed with “two pizzas,” it was too big.



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