Teams: Size Does Matter


Unsurprisingly, we are asked a myriad of questions in relation to teams. Questions about how to manage team communication, team dynamics, over-running and pointless meetings, disengaged team members, lack of team innovation…


Regardless of the question, the first thing we ask is, 'How many people are in the team?' People tend to look at us quizzically, not quite understanding why this matters, and reply, '18, 25, 14, 32…' or, 'Depends who's in'.


One of the fundamentals about teams (that is largely ignored by a lot of coverage on teams) is that size matters. Teams should be limited in size, since they should only contain people that have been actively selected for what they can contribute to the team at a given time. And people in the team should change – teams should be fluid and reactive, changing to ensure they achieve whatever it is they set out to do.


Meredith Belbin's ideal team size is 4.


Why 4? Because everyone will have equal(ish) input, airtime, responsibility and actions. There shouldn't be any duplication of roles (functional or team) and decision-making will be less drawn out. An even number means that agreement has to be reached – no one person has the casting vote. Group-think is less likely to happen. People are more likely to challenge, discuss problems openly, and arrive at appropriate solutions.


But there are Nine Team Roles...


Yes, there are. But each of us can make a positive contribution using more than one Team Role. In general, we tend to find that we can play all nine Team Roles, but we have real strengths in 2-3, we can manage another 2-3 and there are 2-3 roles that we really should leave alone and delegate to someone who has them as a strength! This means that a team of 4, if put together with care, should cover all nine Team Roles.


As numbers increase, the team's narrative changes:


  • Four: "We’re well-balanced in our team and good at achieving agreement."

  • Five: "One of us tends to be the odd one out."

  • Six: "It takes longer to reach agreement, but we get there in the end."

  • Seven: "Rather too many random contributions float about."

  • Eight: "People speak freely but no one listens."

  • Nine: "We could do with someone taking control."

  • Ten: "We now have a leader, but their ideas are the only ones with a chance of acceptance."


In Remote Teams


The organisational chart may say one thing, but now that’s stuck to the wall of an empty office. Suddenly, we need people to work remotely, but the larger the group, the more difficult it is to arrange online meetings, achieve consensus, meet deadlines, the list goes on...

When we ask people to obtain Observer feedback from colleagues, to inform their Belbin Report, we often recommend asking 4-6 people. That’s because it’s not usually possible for one person to work closely with more than that number. Where large groups are in disguise as teams, we often find that smaller ‘subteams’ emerge, to help people get back to that magic number. Now that many of us are no longer in the office, where team membership was likely influenced by our physical location, we’re likely to see these ‘real teams’ more clearly, and might feel freer to form new connections where they are needed.


To ensure everyone's voice is heard, keep teams small when working remotely. Use break-out rooms when needed, and because we're not in the same space, make time for 1:1 conversations.