The Optimal Team Size is….

Posted by Kristin Arnold on December 3, 2010

I am often asked, “what’s the best number of people to put on a team?” 

Basketball teams have five, baseball nine, and soccer 11.  But when it comes to the workplace, what is the optimal number?

According to Evan Wittenberg, director of the Wharton Graduate Leadership Program, while the research on optimal team numbers is “not conclusive, it does tend to fall into the five to 12 range, though some say five to nine is best, and the number six has come up a few times.”

Fortune magazine (June 12, 2006) pronounced the most productive teams should have 4.6 team members.  Inquiring minds want to know:  how do you make a sixth of a person participate?.  

While I hesitate to make such a precise pronouncement, I will share with you some of the factors you should consider when deciding how many and, more specifically, who should be on your team:

Task.  What are you asking the team to do?  Is it highly independent or interdependent work?  Is there precedent in that it has been done before or is it an entirely new task? 

Representation.  Do you have a representative from each part of the system, process or other stakeholder groups?

Diversity.  Do you have the functional, gender, geographic, racial, educational, societal (and the list could go on…) diversity within the team?  Even better, do you have representatives who can wear multiple hats so that you can limit the number of people who need to be in the room (but can be represented by others)?

Skill Level.  People who have truly been on successful teams before (typically called “exceptional team players”) tend to assimilate good teaming behaviors into whatever team they are on.

Developmental Needs.  Many organizations continually ask the same dependable people to work on important teams.  Perhaps you have gone to the well just a few too many times and need to invest in some new blood and fresh perspectives?

Depending on these factors, you may want to add or subtract a few folks from the mix.  And then don’t forget the Ringlemann Effect.   At the turn of the 20th century, a French agricultural engineer, Maximilian Ringlemann analyzed the pull force of people alone and in groups as they pulled on a rope.  As Ringlemann added more and more people at the rope, he discovered that the total force generated by the group rose, but the average force exerted by each group member declined, thereby discrediting the theory that a group team effort results in increased effort. 

Ringlemann attributed this lack of effort as “social loafing” where the group will hide the fact that individuals are not “pulling their weight.”

“After about five people, there are diminishing returns on how much people will pull,” says Wharton management professor, Jennifer Mueller.  “But people, unless they are not motivated or the task is arbitrary, will not want to show social loafing. If the task is boring and mundane, they are more likely to loaf.”

So while the sweet spot of a self-managed team may be 4.6 people, you can involve more people and achieve greater results with a skilled facilitator.  An experienced, master facilitator (like myself) can effectively manage the group dynamics of any size so that you can achieve the desired results smoothly, collaboratively and without social loafing.

Question:  What team size works best for you?

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