Is your team small enough?

Is your team larger than 10 people? If so it is too big.

An ideal team size is between 3 and 10 members. This is true for all teams but especially for Executive Teams. When teams are larger than 10 members, meetings become less effective, time is wasted seeking consensus and the necessary conflict and spirited discussion required to generate real clarity is hard to have – all leading to important decisions failing to be made and windows of opportunity closing.

An Executive Team we worked with found it very difficult to make the hard decisions about team size and membership. At one point there were between 15 and 18 people on the top team.

The CEO thought that including everyone was a great developmental opportunity and it would improve morale amongst his leaders. He also thought it would help with communication, increase buy-in and speed up execution from the next layer of leaders. The result was the exact opposite.

Meeting times doubled.

There were just so many opinions to be heard and considered that team meetings became protracted and laborious. Members quickly became disillusioned with the ineffective meetings and team structure.

Then they fell into the consensus trap.

With the large group size making firm decisions became almost impossible and instead of getting buy-in, members started checking out. Soon team members only paid attention in meetings when a topic relating to their business area was being discussed. The rest of the time it was screens up and masks on.

Frustration grew.

This CEO feared conflict – deep down he wanted to be liked, especially by the people he was leading and he hardly ever forced clarity or closure on issues. He preferred to take the popular route and so deadlocks were never broken for fear of upsetting people. A fear of conflict was also one of the main reasons why this company’s team size issue had never been resolved. He simply did not want to alienate or disappoint people around him and so uncomfortable decisions were never made.

On a smaller team people are expected to weigh in and contribute … there are no places to hide. Issues can really be discussed. Now the lively debate and conflict that’s essential to gaining commitment can occur without worrying about its effect on the perceptions of others (we will talk about healthy conflict in August’s blog post). You can make sure that all points of view are thoroughly aired but also that decisions get made without being bogged down by consensus.

In the end, this turned out to be a great learning experience for the CEO. Ironically trying to be inclusive, at the wrong time, coupled with the need to be popular ultimately hurt the credibility of his leadership team and his organisation’s ability to produce results. He discovered that the next layer of leaders were looking for the Executive Team to lead, which meant having the difficult conversations at the top before communicating to the wider business. They needed the top team to clarify their thinking first before coming to them.

This did not mean they didn’t want to be consulted, but they did not expect to do the thinking for the Executives or get entangled in issues and dynamics that the top team had been unable or unwilling to resolve for themselves.

In the end his biggest lesson was that team size and membership is a critical issue for the productivity of the entire business as a whole.

Reducing the size of a team can be difficult. But how much is it worth to your company to be able to make important decisions quickly, to not miss out on important opportunities and to get unqualified commitment from your Executive Team members when communicating and executing those decisions?

Are you willing to do what it takes to optimize the size of your team? We would love to hear from you if this is something you are working on or have stories to share. Leave us a comment below or send us an email to learning@leadershipworks.co.za.

Next month we will deal with the issue of trust, why it’s such a vital ingredient and how to build it on a team.

About the Author:

Grant Ashfield
Grant Ashfield works with senior teams and their leaders to help them reach their full potential. His main purpose professionally is equipping top teams to deliver outstanding results. Grant works extensively in Southern Africa and also consults to businesses in Australia, South East Asia and the United States. Grant is the CEO of LeadershipWorks.

5 Comments

  1. Clyde Thomas June 29, 2015 at 11:02 am - Reply

    Meetings so often feel like they go on too long and keep me away from the work I need to be doing. People never seem to say the hard things that would cause a change in the way a business operates and succeeds and instead all just agree with one another. I think the lack of conflict in meetings can definitely be holding back a companies progress. I love that you gave us a strong tangible solution to allowing more conflict and disagreement to take place and cannot wait until August’s newsletter to hear more about generating healthy conflict in meetings.

    • Grant Ashfield
      Grant Ashfield July 9, 2015 at 2:17 pm - Reply

      A lack of conflict in meetings definitely hampers progress. It leads to people agreeing but not really committing. We call it artificial or false harmony and it’s a fast (and slippery) road to mediocrity. Real commitment requires emotional buy-in and clarity and for this people need to trust each other and be willing to take risks in how they show up and contribute. There are real rewards for doing so – personal growth, better results, greater recognition – yet sadly we still see so many examples where team members hold back or check out!

  2. Ian Thomas June 29, 2015 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    It would be interesting to combine this idea of small teams with another idea that I have heard of; holding meetings standing up. This may be part of the solution to the enormous amount of time wasted during these discussions.

    • Julie Hulme July 9, 2015 at 7:47 am - Reply

      Hi Ian,

      I can tell you that I have implemented this very successfully in the past, in an operational setting of course. I have not found it to be appropriate for an exec team, but I can tell you it is a way to get more energy into meetings.

  3. Heather June 29, 2015 at 2:04 pm - Reply

    Your example reminds me how quickly we often forget why we add members to our teams. Executives (leaders) agonise over hiring new talent, seeking out the best contributor for the role. We appoint new team members with trust and respect for their experience, ability and skills. And yet, through inclusiveness and wanting to ‘keep the peace’ we set aside that diversity and lose the true value of the contribution that was waiting to be made by the very person we were relying on to do so.

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