Self-organisation and team size

In my last post I talked about how self-organisation occurs and how we can try to make the most of it. This time I want to talk more specifically about team size and how I think it impacts self-organisation.

I would argue that the difference between a group of individuals and a team is the ability of the group to adapt to maintain its interests. For example, an amateur football team needs to adapt to the opposition’s tactics to try and win games and stay competitive. If they couldn’t do this effectively they’d probably lose all their games, get relegated and eventually get so fed up they’d disband and spend their weekends playing golf instead.

As we know from my last article, that ability to adapt is when self-organisation occurs and therefore we can say self-organisation is a key component of effective team dynamics.

Too big?

A significant factor in being able to self-organise is for the people who make up a group to be able to communicate & collaborate effectively and form the shared identity and shared goals which determine the group’s boundaries. This is one reason why agile proponents favour co-located teams and open plan offices, but there’s only so much that will help – 100 people working in the same office on the same project are going to struggle to maintain the types of quite intimate relationships which are required for self-organisation to emerge.

Too small?

Most attention seems to be focused on how large a group can become be before it starts to lose its ability to self-organise and work as a team, but I think it’s just as important to consider how small an effective team can be. If we look to sport we very rarely (if ever) see teams of less than 5 people and when we do it’s in sports such as rowing, where the complexity of the interactions between team members is low. When you only have 3 or 4 people in a team (as opposed to 10) the flexibility of the group to adapt to situations is limited by the number of ways the group can organise itself.

For example, in a game of 3-a-side football (soccer) someone is invariably going to have to be responsible for guarding the goal to prevent the opposition just shooting from long range or provide some defence if one of the opposition breaks away whilst your team is attacking. This leaves the other two players little option but to pass it back and forth between each other, making it rather predictable for the opposition and frankly, not much of a spectator sport.

Adding one more person doubles the number of possible connections between the group. Adding two more almost quadruples it. As this is exponential the possible connections increases greatly with each new addition to the group, but this then comes back to how many people you can realistically maintain a relationship with within the boundaries of the group and the context of its environment, so clearly there’s a balance between the two.

Software teams

From what I can see the main objective of working in teams is for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not saying a “team” of 3 people won’t do a good job, but it will find it hard to behave like a team as it will struggle to reach and maintain the behaviours it needs to self-organise well – the limitations of the group become more acute. For example, when someone is on holiday or off sick it’s much harder to adapt to this and if you have junior or inexperienced people in the team you are very limited about how you can share work, as neither of them can work very well on their own or together.

Scrum proponents suggests the most effective size for software teams is between 5-9 people. Jeff Bezos introduced the concept of Two Pizza Teams – team’s are at the best size when comfortably fed by two large pizzas. In fact, doing a general search for optimum or effective team sizes finds that many people have come to a similar conclusion on the effectiveness of team sizes (see here and here)  - that the team only really becomes a team with around 5 members, but starts to degrade when you reach 9.

If a small team (e.g. 2-3 people) is your only option then it’s certainly no disaster, but if your decision was how to best organise a larger number of people into contextual groups then it may be better to aim for somewhere a bit higher as the overhead of managing all the small teams combined with the increased complexity of the communication networks between the teams and the risk of knowledge silos may well outweigh any perceived benefits.

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