How Big Should My Team Be – Thoughts On Team Composition

How Big Should My Team Be? Thoughts On Team Composition

What Is The Ideal Team Size?

In the course of planning team development events for our clients, we are often asked how many teams should a team building group be divided into? This question usually arises at the planning phase of a team building session. 

Having witnessed and planned thousands of team activities over 20+ years, the answer we confidently give is generally 8-12 people. This not based on any scientific evidence or an exhaustive study but purely on what we have witnessed through many years and hours of experience.

So I thought I’d spend some time looking specifically at this question in the context of teams generally – how many team members should make up a team for maximum efficiency and effectiveness? It’s an important question.

Not only in terms of event planning but also in terms of business planning and team composition generally. It’s an easy cop-out to just say ‘well it depends’ … 

The reality is that at some point as you add team members, efficiency and effectiveness starts to decrease. In addition if the team is too small, you may end up with not enough input to effectively complete the task at hand.

Clearly there are subjective factors related to the nature of the task and resources available plus external factors such as space and logistics.  

So in order to answer the question at hand lets look at a very simple activity that we include in many different forms on many of our events – a simple puzzle building activity.

During this activity team members are asked to build a 54 piece puzzle as quickly as possible. No puzzle template is given so they must work from scratch. The puzzle board is 1m x 1m. A maximum of 12 people can comfortably fit around the board.

We have found that for high levels groups who have experience working in teams, 5-8 people is ideal for maximum success and speed. As we add people after 8 to the team, the team actually gets slower. 

Why is this? Surely the more the merrier? Well, as it turns out, that’s not true at all. Conventional team theory has some interesting lessons for us as I found out after researching the topic.

There have been many studies conducted and articles written over the years regarding ideal team size and the answer may surprise some you – it’s fewer then you think!

Before we discuss the negative impact of larger teams it is important to note that large teams do have some inherent advantages. 

In a situation such as a trivia exercise, there is a much larger likelihood that somebody in a large team will know the answer to a tough question. In the business context it is undeniable that more team members means more ideas and potentially more solutions. However there are some inherent negative effects of bigger teams that must be considered and that outweigh the potential benefit of large, bloated teams:

Coordination becomes more difficult as team size increases. It becomes increasingly more difficult to organise and plan with efficiency as a team gets larger. 

Cutting through all of the noise and consolidating ideas can become near impossible. Reaching consensus in a timely manner also suffers.

Social loafing is more likely to occur in large teams where individual team members feel that their contribution is watered down and don’t put in the effort that they should.

Finally relational support is not as strong in a large team as the many relationships that occur in large teams tend to create silos within the team that hinder it’s performance.

In a study conducted by P.R. Laughlin in 2006 and involving university students who were asked to complete a simple letters to numbers puzzle, the answer to the question of ideal team size came up with an interesting result – three!

In other studies, the common answer seems to 3-6 people, with slight variations in answer depending on the task at hand.

As business leaders, what are the lessons to be learned here?

Think carefully about team composition

Often decisions about team composition are made arbitrarily 

If your large team is functioning sub-optimally, break it down into smaller teams

More members don’t always make a better team

Sean Uys holds a Bcom LLB from UKZN, he has been involved in group dynamics and designing team based programs for over 20 years. He is the GM of Beach and Bush Team Building, Southern Africa’s largest provider of team building to companies and organisations.

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