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Team Productivity

What is the Ideal Team Size to Maximize Productivity?

Daniel Threlfall
August 29, 2016

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The best team size is 4.6. So say the guys in white coats that make a living out of answering such questions.

Ideal team size

But as soon as you hear that number, you can probably think of plenty of objections. “What about” this and that, and skillset, and dynamic, and leadership, and flat organizations, and brainstorming, and task allocation, and workflow management, and on and on.

Assigning a specific number, let alone a number with a decimal, is rarely the best way to answer carte blanche such a significant question. (Who gets to be the 0.6 team member?)

But the question is worth asking.

Is there such a thing as an ideal team size — one that will allow productivity to skyrocket?

What I’m asking for is a number, just the right amount of people. A team of this size can move quickly, make decisions rapidly, and get stuff done with remarkable productivity.

This is more than managerial curiosity.

The question has enormous implications for business. Hiring people costs money. Hiring the wrong people costs even more money. Hiring too few people is an expensive mistake. But hiring too many people is equally wasteful. A team with too many members could trip over itself, but a team with too few may be heading towards disaster, too.

Don’t forget the social, dynamic, and chemistry issues, too. If you hire too many people you wind up dealing with social loafing, political infighting, workplace cliques, more complex workflows and a much higher payroll cost.

Ah, the delightful dance of the project manager.

This is why a lot of hiring managers try to lock down the perfect size for a team. You’re trying to find that sweet spot in productivity and cost savings.

The problem is that many go about it all wrong.

You don’t begin with an ideal team size and then fill the gaps. So, where do you begin?

Let me share with you some stories, a bit of research, and then the ultimate answer to the question that’s now burning in your mind — what’s the ideal team size?

Two Pizzas, and Not a Slice More

Conventional wisdom says that two heads are better than one. The more people you have working on a project, looking at the angles, and contributing ideas the better off you are, and the more likely you are to hit your goals.

Having more hands on deck is attractive, even if you’re talking about building a small team that’s just a bit larger than what you have now.

But throwing more people at something doesn’t automatically produce success.

If you act on that belief — that more people means better results — requires you to treat each individual person as an equally measured solution - like perfectly molded stackable cups that each hold an equal amount of volume.

People don’t work like that.

We’re beginning to see an answer to the team size question.

Building a team by the numbers is ineffective.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was opposed to growing teams this way. According to the Wall Street Journal:

One former executive recalled that, at an offsite retreat where some managers suggested employees should start communicating more with each other, Bezos stood up and declared, “No, communication is terrible!” He wanted a decentralized, even disorganized company where independent ideas would prevail over groupthink.

What was his point? Isn’t improving communication a good idea?

Of course it is. But Bezos was more interested in allowing innovation and independent decision-making to thrive, aided and abetted by the right communication (not more communication).

That’s where team size comes into play. Bigger teams produce more communication hurdles. Smaller teams enjoy more fluid and spontaneous communication.

Bezos coined the concept of the “2 pizza teams”; if a team couldn’t be fed with 2 pizzas then it was too big.

Does this give us a magic number for team size?

Six people, right?

Not so fast.

What if Jerry skipped breakfast? Oh, and Sally is on a diet. And by the way, Joe typically eats seven slices of pizza.

Again, personal dynamic shapes the creation of the right team size.

Bezos’ focus on the independent is a smart approach. When you focus on the team size, you ignore the individual.

It really boils down to communication. As one article explains, “communication gets terrible as team size grows.”

The formula looks like this.

Screenshot 2016-08-29 09.20.22

And the bigger the team size, the more links between individual members.

Here’s how the Fast Company explains the concept of the two-pizza team size:

highly autonomous task forces with five to seven people

The bottom line?

Communication matters. And more communication reduces team productivity.

The proper team size for maximum productivity is probably going to be in the 5-7 person range.

Unless Joe is going to eat a whole pizza himself. And Sally is doing Whole 30.

Which brings me to this point.

Size Should Not be The Primary Concern

Management and leadership experts from Pennsylvania’s Wharton University discussed this approach in great detail, acknowledging that size should not be the first consideration when putting together an effective team.

“First, it’s important to ask what type of task the team will engage in,” says Jennifer Mueller, former management professor at Wharton.

“Answering that question will define whom you want to hire, what type of skills you are looking for. A subcategory to this is the degree of coordination required. If it’s a sales team, the only real coordination comes at the end. It’s all individual, and people are not interdependent. The interdependence matters, because it is one of the mechanisms that you use to determine if people are getting along.”

After understanding the task or the goal of the team, the next step, says Mueller, is to understand the composition of your team. What are the skills that are necessary in order to achieve the goal. When you identify the necessary skills and the roadmap to reach the goal you can then look to team size.

Following these steps you may discover that your team need not be more than 2 or 3 people in order to cover the skills and tasks necessary to accomplish your goal.

Or it might be 4. Or 7.

Maybe even 4.6.

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Diminishing Effort as Size Grows

While the insight from Wharton management professors make it easy to define the necessary team size you should aim for, factoring in workload tends to complicate things.

A project manager may feel that the scale of a project requires more people in order to hit a deadline.

Unfortunately, adding people for the sole purpose of increasing productivity can generate the Ringelmann effect.

The what?

It’s the Ringelmann effect, and here’s how Wikipedia defines it:

The Ringelmann effect is the tendency for individual members of a group to become increasingly less productive as the size of their group increases.

Ringelmann’s study analyzed how subjects pulled on a rope both as an individual and as part of a group. The pull force of the individuals was measured, starting by themselves and then continually measured as more people were added.

As the number of people pulling the rope increased the total force being generated continued to rise. However, the average pull force of each individual diminished and continued to fall.

Ringelmann Rope Pulling Experiment

This study discredits the idea that a larger team effort results in more effort overall, and it presents clear reasoning why attempting to target a specific team size with the aim of being more productive isn’t an effective approach.

Ringelmann Effect

Takeway? Bigger isn’t better for productivity.

Increasing Links Leads to Relational Loss

Harvard Psychologist, J. Richard Hackman, was of the mindset that larger teams led to reduced productivity.

In his studies he found that as you increase the number of individuals it wasn’t necessarily the number of bodies that was the issue; it was the communication links which had to be maintained that created a great deal of strain.

I shared this equation earlier:

Janet Choi of Buffer broke this equation down to show how the number of links grow as the number of employees grow within a group:

As the number of links between people rises, so to do the opportunities for miscommunication, project delays, and human error in the deployment and execution with workflows.

This coincides with Jennifer Mueller’s theory on relational loss – the idea that you feel like you’re receiving less support and engagement as a group or team grows in size. As a result, you perform worse and productivity drops.

Mueller believed the growing number of links between people, based on Hackman’s formula, led to a deterioration of individual performance as well as a breakdown in communication and relationships. In her studies even organizations with a large focus on coordination still showed compelling evidence for relational loss.

Those findings show a correlation with Dunbar’s Number as well; a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom you can maintain a stable relationship with. In the 90’s, Anthropologist Robin Dunbar found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size.

By using the average human brain size and comparing the data on primate studies, Dunbar proposed that people could only really maintain stable relationships with around 150 other people.

So, simply put, when the number of total cognitive connections (links) reaches its peak, performance and focus begin to decrease and you feel disconnected on a larger level. That creates feelings of isolation and chronic stress in larger groups which in turn impacts the cognitive abilities of the employee, and performance within the team will plummet.

Productivity dies.

Stop Auditing People. Start Auditing Processes.

When productivity issues arise it’s not uncommon for leadership to respond quickly and begin examining the performance of the employees in a group.

That typically results in requirements for better communication, more accountability, disciplinary action, coaching for individual employees, and sometimes the addition of new people to a group to boost productivity.

All of which do very little to improve productivity.

In 1982 William Deming published a number of guiding principles that reshaped the automotive industry and ramped up productivity. His principles are still referred to today, and one is particularly applicable to this issue of auditing and improving productivity.

“Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.”

It’s naïve to think that productivity issues can be resolved with a specific team size, and even more so to think that productivity issues relate specifically to a conscious decision by an employee to underperform.

Too many leaders attempt to manage employees into being more productive. What should occur is an audit of the processes, where teams are built from employees specifically based on what needs to be accomplished.

You eliminate the need to audit and continually add to it in the hopes of maintaining productivity.

You’ve built a team that is exactly the right size, with the right people, who can accomplish the goals of your project.


No matter how you approach it, there will never been an ideal number you should aim for when building teams.

Why? There are simply too many factors to consider (both human and business) that impact team performance.

So did you read this entire article for naught?

No. Thankfully, research has shown that smallish teams tend to produce optimal results, but there are also situations in which a larger team could do well.

Next time you need to put a team together, don’t obsess over the right number. Instead, remember ask yourself these three questions

Be sure to arm your team with the tools and resources they need for effective communication (try Slack), and the right project management tool.

The right toolkit will support the team’s skills, and will be a major contributing factor to the overall productivity of your team.

What’s your approach to building teams? Have you experienced team bloat and limited productivity or do you run smaller, more efficient teams?

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