The Number of People on a Team

Did you ever wonder why they tell you that the optimal size for a team is six to 12?

First, let’s define a team. A team is “two or more people; similar or complementary skills; committed to a common: purpose, process, customer, set of performance goals; hold themselves accountable to each other and to the organization.”

The number of communications links, between team members, grows exponentially. This assumes that each member has a means to communicate with each other member. Two team members have one link. Three team members have three links. Four team members have six links. Five have ten. Six have 15. Seven have 21. Eight have 28. Nine have 36. Ten have 45. Eleven have 55. Twelve have 66. The formula is (n x (n – 1)) / 2, where n is the number of team members.

ten person diagram

The Diagram for Ten

As you can see, the number of links is growing to be an unmanageable number. Why is a large number unmanageable? The number of links represent the number of individual communication paths that have to be managed to arrive at decisions together.

It amuses me to have people pound the table and insist that they, indeed, have 30 members on their team. “No, there are no sub-teams.” 30 members have 435 links. How do they get work done? Where do you have regular team meetings?

Want to know why the U.S. Congress has a difficult time getting to a decision? There are 100 senators and 435 representatives in the U.S. House. 100 senators means 4,950 links. 435 representatives means 94,395 links. No wonder they have difficulty. And, those numbers don’t take into account the complexity added with their staffers.

Conventional wisdom tells us to have sub-teams report to the primary team through the leader of the sub-team seated on the primary team. This allows a team of 30 to be a primary team of six.  Each of the secondary teams can have five or six members and still maintain a reasonable communication and decision-making plan.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mr. Czerniak retired after a successful career that culminated in fifteen years of experience as an internal consultant and “change agent.” He is currently a volunteer at the Macomb-Oakland University Incubator and a volunteer with other clients.

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