The Secret to Successful Teams is in the Numbers

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Motivational Speaker Bill Stainton

A Typical Board Meeting

Because I apparently have trouble saying no, I’ve been a member of several boards of directors (or, in some cases, boards of trustees, although the differences, as far as I could tell, were negligible). Some of these boards were more dysfunctional than others. Eventually I noticed that as the size of the board increased (i.e., number of people), so did the dysfunction. According to the research, the same is true of nearly all work teams.

So now, as a writer, I have a choice. I could go on for several paragraphs citing the research…or…I could just cut to the chase. Let’s take a vote.

[voting happens]

Okay, I have the results, and the overwhelming choice is to cut to the chase. (For those of you who voted for the paragraphs of research, there’s this thing called Google.)

It seems like the ideal number for a work team is five, plus or minus two. Yes, yes, I know that years ago a psychologist named George Miller said the ideal number was seven, plus or minus two. But who are you going to believe–me (and I have 29 Emmy® Awards), or some psychologist who isn’t even alive anymore?

Look, there’s a reason why both Navy Seal combat teams and the basic work teams at consulting firm McKinsey both number four. Trust me–the Navy Seals didn’t just flip a coin on this. They found that four was their optimal size. And when, in a Harvard Business School study, a hospital emergency department subdivided their überteam of 30 doctors and  nurses into smaller teams of six, it resulted in smoother information flow, reduced confusion, and better relationships.

I work with leaders to help them get better results with their teams. And for you leaders, one thing I’ve found to be almost universally true is that when your team hits double digits, it’s time to subdivide. Smaller teams of three, four, or five will, as a rule, get much more done much more efficiently. That’s because a smaller team can focus on the work, while a large team ends up focusing primarily on team dynamics.

So let’s say you’re not producing the results you’d like with your team. Before you start firing people, before you start bringing in high-priced consultants, before you force everybody take some quadrant-based assessment–take a look at your numbers. How big is your team? If it’s ten or more people, you might be able to save money, save time, and produce better results by simply turning your big team into a few smaller teams.


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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