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If you’re a startup, then your organisation is the team.  If you’re in a larger enterprise, your team can start small: maybe even just with you!

Either way, no matter how small you start, if you are even modestly successful, you’re going to have to grow the team.  In fact, beyond the craziness of early stage startups, mostly you have to grow the team in order to be successful.

As you grow, you run the risk of getting too large, and all that great teamwork will start to unravel.  

How large is too large?  

Sadly there’s no hard and fast answer. The size and the reasons will be different for different circumstances: cultures, locations, age, technology and funding can all contribute to the optimal size of a team.  As a leader, you’ll have to understand how these factors feed into the team structure and dynamics.   These qualitative reasons are often subtle, but have immense leverage.  Not only that, but they are often invisible to outsiders.  Management literature is filled with stories of managers from one culture trying to manage a team from a different culture.

Fortunately, there are some quantitative indicators that help you nut out this problem.

Here are a few hard numbers to give some very general parameters:  1 is not really a team, so it’s typically more than 1.  I don’t think a “team” really forms until you’ve got 3 or more.  So let’s say the lower bound on team size is 3.  If you’re familiar with Dunbar’s Number, you’ll know that about 150 people is the maximum number of people with whom you can maintain “stable social relationships …relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person”

So 150 looks like the maximum that’s consistent with what I think of a team, although a that many people would probably be formed into smaller groups.  

At the other end of the scale, the capacity of human short-term memory is generally considered to be 7 plus or minus 2.  So if you have high intensity interactions with your team mates, then 7-ish sounds and feels like the maximum size for that type of team.  

On growth, I heard Peter Theil talking about startup growth once, and he mentioned organisational structure and organisation having material changes at multiples of 10 and 30: as the organisation goes through these thresholds, it has to refactor itself and will come out of that change fundamentally different: so much so that some people will leave. So we have some data points on which to plot potential team size issues: 3, 7, 10, 30, 100, 150, 300 etc etc.  

Those are some good indicators on size and the threshold for change. But whatever the actual size, people in the team will know pretty soon if the team is too big, taking all considerations into account.  So how do you recognize this?  How do you know that the team is too big?

You know the team is too large when:

  • You don’t know everyone’s name;
  • it takes longer to write the attendees at a meeting than it does to write the minutes;
  • You don’t know what everyone is doing;
  • You get greeted in the hallway by people you don’t know;
  • You look at a list of personnel, and you know fewer than half of them;
  • You meet a team member for the first time, and you already know their name and title;
  • You deal with a major employee personal issue every day of the week;
  • You have to think about trading off between a team lunch and a new PC;
  • The lunch bill for the whole team exceeds your sign-off delegation;
  • You *have* a sign-off delegation;
  • Someone admonishes you for leaving an empty cup in the sink;
  • It takes more than one delivery bike to deliver pizzas for the team;
  • Your suppliers (e.g. for beer, paper or pizzas) start transferring you to their “wholesale” department;
  • You can’t get everyone into any of the available meeting rooms;
  • You need more than one printer;
  • The number of seats you need to buy for any online SaaS provider pushes you out of the bottom tier;
  • You need a software tool to keep organised;
  • You spend a lot of time talking about tools and processes;
  • Your team members start to reduce talking to each other and increase their demands for a “collaboration system”;
  • You hire someone to help you with your tools and processes;
  • People start emailing each other from their cubicles, 5 metres away from each other;
  • You have to deal with an equipment issue every day;
  • Someone doesn’t do something because “they are waiting on” someone else in the team;
  • You are filling in recruitment paperwork every week;
  • You have HR specialists
  • You spend more time with your HR specialist than you do on any technical work stream;
  • The boat company you use for your Xmas party doesn’t have a big enough boat;
  • You have to update the team distribution list every week;
  • You have multiple distribution lists;
  • You have multiple Xmas party events;
  • You have ethnic themed Xmas parties at multiple times in the year;
  • Someone goes on leave and it doesn’t cause a panic;
  • Someone did or didn’t do something “because the process says” that’s what they should do (or not);
  • You’ve lost a major document on the file server because there are too many files and directories on the server;
  • You think you need a document register to keep everyone in the know;
  • You have to book a restaurant weeks ahead because you need the whole place;
  • You have someone who never goes on leave;
  • More people don’t come to a team function than actually come;
  • You need more than one bus to get you to the function location;
  • You write a key team members travel separation policy;
  • You change from offsite meetings and weekend retreats to “In-house” conferences;
  • You appoint team leaders for teams created by splitting larger teams into smaller chunks;
  • When you have a team function, you stop caring about individual schedules: “they will come, or they won’t”;