How Big Can a Small Team Be?

There's no exact answer to the question of what is the optimum team size. It depends on human factors, such as the make-up of the individual players. For example, how well do they communicate and how generous are they with praise and credit for success? It also depends on how many different skills are needed for the tasks at hand.

History has proven that there are optimal sizes for organizations and, in this context, teams. If the team is too small, there’s not enough critical mass or variety of talent. If the team is too large, it becomes slow and the direct personal payback is diminished. For example, have you ever stepped out on a softball field with 15 players already on the turf? The feeling is usually: "There's no room for me here. They don’t need me. It'll take me forever to get up to bat."

There are guidelines for setting team size. Think in terms of the games we invent for entertainment. Our sports teams, for example, are typically made up of 5-12 people. If the team is too small, the power of the feeling of group victory is diminished. If the team is too large, people begin to lose sight of their individual contribution, and the chance of building deep relationships is diminished.

Think in terms of how many disciplines are needed and how many specialists in each discipline.

Consider carefully the balance between having a specialist complete an entire task vs. dividing it into higher and lower levels to be divided among less- and more-experienced people.

Software is automating so many left-brain tasks that it's becoming more practical to allow a higher salaried person to do the entire task without delegating to others. This alone is allowing for smaller teams. The smaller the team the fewer "batons" are passed in the race to completion of a project. Smaller teams can usually change directions more quickly. They see more results of their individual efforts. Individuals can see their true vision come to fruition as they move from conception through execution without interference or compromise with others.

Smaller teams have many advantages. The disadvantages of fewer members can be offset by insuring two important elements:

  • The quality of the individuals on the team.
  • The amount and timing of the feedback they receive on their work in progress.

Frederick Reichheld of Bain & Company, a research firm, wrote in the October 2001 issue of Harvard Management Update in his article on employee loyalty, "...the military has learned that the essential management device that makes beliefs and desires practical and operation is the small team in which individual soldiers operate. Small units, made up of 5-10 soldiers, provide clear visibility and accountability. Everyone's role is vital because there is no slack, and even in chaotic battle conditions, rapid communication and coordination are still possible."

As to the effect a team's size has on loyalty, Bain's research reveals that at least half the teams in American companies are too large to foster superior loyalty. It concludes that small teams have the highest levels of employee loyalty and that, on average, a team of seven or fewer scores 15 percentage points higher on employee loyalty than teams of more than 25.

Cynthia Clotzman, an associate and our Customer Relationship Management (CRM) coach articulated her experience in working with teams of various sizes and skills in the following illustration:

12-person team:

"When a team is large – 12 people, for example – they often have 4-8 members who are not heavily involved throughout the process. I have found that if 'mini-teams' are brought in throughout a project's life, less people sit in on meetings that don't affect them, and they are able to work on other projects where their skills are more needed at that time."