Does Size Matter?

If you manage a team you are probably faced with the issue of selecting team members and finding the best possible team. When we think about sports, there are specific numbers for different teams. A football team is always 11 people and basketball 5. However, when we consider the workplace there does not appear to be a set rule that determines the optimal number of team players. So how do you know if your team is too small? Or too big? Is there a right number?

The question of size has come up many times and not only in the context of teams…In terms of team dynamics and what makes a successful team, many important factors need to be considered. However, here the focus will be on the optimal team size.

There numerous studies based on communication and team structures. The famous work of Maximilian
Ringelmann over a century ago, analysed people alone and in a team as they pulled on a rope. The study shows that the more people who pull on a rope, the less effort each individual contributed (often known as the Ringelmann effect).

Wharton management professor Katherine J. Klein says that beyond 8 or 9 people teams become cumbersome and star t to break down into sub teams and also suggests that individuals in larger teams can free ride (Ringelmann effect). Jennifer S. Mueller, also a Wharton management professor, states that it is not so much the size of the team that matters, the important issue is the type of task the team is involved in.

The agile movement, with SCRUM as a leading method, sets a “natural limit” and recommends the team size to be 7 plus or minus 2 which basically means it can vary between 5 and 9. Other studies relating to Parkinson’s Law suggest that anything below 10 can work except for 8. It states eight people will often find themselves in deadlock situations over decisions and above 10 the team will face natural separations and no consensus will be found. Jurgen Appelo states that 5 as the optimal team size based on several studies.

These are all interesting results. We have not asked how many people make a team. Are 2 people a team? There are many definitions out there of what constitutes a team and they general fall into 2 categories: 1- a group of people with a common goal and 2- a group of people who work well together. In essence, if you don’t have this you have a group of people, not a team.

In reality, team sizes tend to depend on what needs to be accomplished as well as budget. The fact remains that regardless of the size of the team every team needs clearly defined goals and objectives. A common sense of purpose and shared vision is crucial. Whether you are a manager or not, do you know what the vision is for your work team? Is everyone singing from the same hymn sheet? We talk about team culture. Do you know what yours is? Is it one that rewards groups or individuals? Do you know what you would like it to be?

Have you worked in different sized teams? Please share with us your experiences and your thoughts on whether size matters or not.


The SCRUM concept was introduced by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka in a 1986 article in The Harvard Business Review, “The New New Product Development Game”.

Photos provided by Flickr users sraggio and PixelPlacebo

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