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Team work: is there a magic number?

A football team is invariably 11, a baseball team nine, but what is the optimum number for a workplace team? Fortune magazine recently proposed the magic 4.6 member team, but with complex organisations there are no hard and fast rules about team size.

by Knowledge@Wharton
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Social psychologists have posed the question of optimum team size ever since French agricultural engineer Maximilian Ringelmann discovered more than a century ago that the more people who pull on a rope, the less effort each one makes.

It is increasingly recognised that teams are able to monitor individuals more than managers are able to control them, says Wharton management professor Jennifer S. Mueller. Size does not necessarily matter as much as the type of task the team is engaged in. From that question flows the composition of individuals and skills that make up the team.

Team size seems to fascinate a lot of academics and businesses, especially as teams become more common in all kinds of organisations. Wharton management professor Katherine J. Klein says that beyond eight or nine people, teams become cumbersome and start to break down into sub-teams. Individuals can free-ride or hide in larger teams – the Ringelmann effect.

According to Evan Wittenberg of Wharton's graduate leadership programme, research shows an optimal team number tends to fall in the five to 12 range, and the number six has come up a few times.

But no matter the size, teams need preparation and clearly defined goals.

Another question is diversity, the value of which is disputed. Some theorists say that it adds to team performance, while others find the opposite effect. Klein finds that some similarity between team members is helpful, as team members better anticipate each others' responses, particularly where tasks are complex, unpredictable or novel.

The most important factor in determining who becomes important in the team is emotional stability. Conversely, someone who is neurotic or easily agitated or angered is bad for the team. Inter-team competition can also be a problem within organisations.

In terms of communication within the team, "email is a terrible medium", warns Wittenberg. Misunderstandings can quickly arise, so face-to-face talking is very important.

Source: Is Your Team Too Big, Too Small? What's The Right Number?
Wharton Leadership and Change
June 2006 
Review by Joe Gill

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