Agile & Digital / Matrix Management / Virtual Teams

Bigger than 6? Your team is probably too big

In a matrix organization, or any large global multi-national, it is easy for teams that start out aiming to be agile and nimble to become ever more complex.  We might form a team to tackle a particular challenge, serve a large global customer or introduce a new bot.  Initially we might have 3-4 people who have relevant specific expertise… and then one or two more people get added to the team as we try to get buy-in across the organization. A few more people join later to represent functions that might be affected by the team’s mission. Then a few more are enrolled so as to make sure that all relevant people have been consulted. Before we know it the team is growing to 12, 15 people.

This is a mistake.  Over 40 years of research into teams by Professor Hackman at Harvard University has shown us that for most issues the most effective teams are made up of 4 to 6 people – with 10 usually being the absolute maximum. In one example, the time it took patients to come through an emergency department dropped by 3 hours, or over 40%, after the A&E teams of 30 were divided up into ‘pods’ of 6.

As Stanford Professor Bob Sutton explains, “as a group expands further, each member devotes more time to coordination chores (and less time to actually doing the work), more hand-offs between the growing cast of members are required (creating opportunities for miscommunication and mistakes), and because each member must divide his or her attention among a longer list of colleagues, the team’s social glue weakens (and destructive conflict soars).”

So next time there’s a request (or an announcement) that a new member is joining your team – share these findings and challenge who can be released to allow this new person to join.  Or if you notice the mission has changed or creeped since the initial team was formed, suggest that we take stock of who still needs to be on the team, or whether a fresh team should be set up and the old one disbanded. If conflict and bureaucracy keep getting in the way of your team getting things done, a simple reduction in numbers, or division into smaller units, could be all that you need to do to get things moving again.

In our training programs we use a model “the magic numbers of community” that shows how different sized groups of individuals cooperate more effectively in teams, groups, communities and networks. If we organize our work around these principles we can radically improve our collaboration.

Anything to avoid being part of the 18th meeting of the Global Expenses Form Committee!

To find out more about how to simplify work in a matrix, download our white paper ‘Matrix management: Beyond structure to winning ways of working’.



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