Is Your Work Team Too Large? Five Ways to Tell, and What to Do About It

“Too many cooks spoil the broth.” – English-language proverb dating back to the Middle Ages.

While it’s true that two heads are often better than one, too many heads is a recipe for poor productivity. Indeed, it is possible to over collaborate. But where’s the sweet spot of just right? For some things, the number may be one. For other tasks, it may be ten. Decades of business research, however, puts the number somewhere between two and seven, with an average of 4.6.

If your team lacks enough to do, it’s most likely too big. What are some other indicators that your team is too large? Keep these factors in mind:

  1. What are you trying to accomplish? For some tasks, many hands make light work. If you’re painting a building or harvesting a field, the more hands, the faster you finish. But as tasks become smaller or more specialized, we see the opposite effect. Everyone wants to contribute, but in trying to do so, they get in each other’s way and add so many different ingredients—based on their personal concepts of what the final product should be like—that it takes forever to finish. When you do, the final product might not resemble the initial plans at all and might be a mish-mash of imperfection.

  2. The intricacy of inter-team communication. As a team increases in size, the amount of communication tends to explode, because the number of links or points of contact (POCs) increases exponentially. You have a POC with every person in the group, and each of them has a POC with you and all the others. Even in a relatively small group, the number of interactions grows quickly. StackOverflow provides a fascinating graphic representation of this growth, starting with a triangle for a three-person team (three POCs) to an intricate Spirograph-like image for a 14-person team’s 91 POCs. From ten persons on, it’s Spirographs all the way. This may explain Jeff Bezos’s famous quote, “Communication is terrible!”

  3. How many pizzas it takes to feed the team.  Speaking of Mr. Bezos, he invented the “Two-Pizza Rule.” According to him, your team should be small enough to feed with two large pizzas. Let’s call the Bezos number 5-8.

  4. The Ringelmann Effect. Based on studies of tug-of-war teams, in 1913 French agricultural engineer Maximilien Ringelmann reported that the more people were involved in a task, the lower the individual effort. Many other researchers have confirmed this phenomenon, which became known as the Ringelmann Effect. According to Ringelmann, maximum effort peaked at 5-6 people. Larger teams might have greater overall productivity than smaller teams, but many of the members slack off more. Some put in minimal effort—now called social loafing. Take a look. How many of your team members are loafing?

  5. Decision-making difficulty. The more people in your group, the harder it can become to make a decision. Even deciding where to go to lunch can be a pain for a large group. Consensus decisions become especially difficult as the number goes up. Even if you base your decisions on a vote or the manager makes the decision, you’ll want to debate all the options first. Conversely, if the team remains small, decision-making is usually much easier.

What to Do If Your Team Is Too Large

If the members of your work team are bored, get in each other’s way more than they help each other, or there’s too much social loafing, you and your leadership as applicable have a few options for increasing your collective performance. You can try to increase engagement, decrease the size of the team as a whole, or split into sub-teams, focusing on specific tasks. Most workers would choose the latter; not just because most of us aren’t managers, but because it works if taken seriously and organized well. Any team can decide to do it if the manager allows, and it immediately reins in most problems.

If management handles the problem, the quickest route may involve laying off redundant workers. Sometimes the remaining workers can accomplish just as much, if not more. If management doesn’t want to downsize, alternate solutions include moving extra workers to other teams in need of them, splitting big teams into smaller ones, or allowing attrition to decrease the headcount through retirement, resignations, etc. Any of these methods can work, if handled thoughtfully.

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

Here’s what others are saying:

“What I enjoyed most about your presentation was that it was not only engaging but also practical in application. I’ve read everything from Covey’s system to “Getting Things Done,” and you presented time management in a way that is the easiest I’ve seen to digest and apply. Thank you for helping our system today!”
—John-Reed McDonald, SVP, Field Operations, Pridestaff

“Laura is an incredible speaker who takes practical information to improve productivity and efficiency and makes it interesting and fun! She has a great sense of humor and completely engaged our corporate and sales team. Laura motivated everyone to take steps to make their lives more productive and efficient.
—Molly Johnson, Vice President Domestic Sales, Episciences, Inc.

“Ms. Laura Stack’s program received the highest scores in the 13-year history of the Institute for Management Studies (IMS) in Cleveland! From the 83 participants, the workshop received a perfect 7.0 for “Effectiveness of the Speaker” and 6.8 for “Value of the Content.” Managers especially valued learning about task management, how to minimize interruptions, organizing with Outlook, prioritizing, effectively saying ‘no,’ how to set boundaries, and recognizing self-imposed challenges to time management.”
—Don Gorning, Chair, Institute for Management Studies Cleveland