Performance Management Blog

Thoughts on Optimal Team Sizes and Intrinsic Motivation for Results

Andrea Goodridge posed the following question in a LinkedIn discussion:  “What is the optimal team size? Does anyone know of any evidence which demonstrates a team’s decay of effectiveness and productivity because of its size? (I am interested to hear if a team of 12 on one site will be more productive than 2 teams of 6 on two sites.) How DO you approach assembling a team or teams that will actually generate results and have organizational impacts?”


To this, I shared some of my thinking and perspective, noting that my experiences are varied on this, but that I have been playing with these same kinds of issues for 20 years (yeah, more like 35 actually…). I am not sure that there IS an answer to the question. (Andrea actually does go on to add some research data in her comments and discussion with me.)

No doubt teams of 5 to 6 people can form up more quickly and identify and solve problems quickly. But do they have the “steam” to actually get things done politically? Is there enough power there to do more than talk? So, a real question is around the issue of real and perceived management support for risk and initiative.

The makeup of the team is also critical — do they have a vested interest in the outcome, are they some of the engaged workers who self-selected onto the team and do they have any previous success with improvements? Note that previous failures are most likely seen as de-motivators of future performance. The organizational culture is also important: Does it support change and improvement and will it allow the group to become a team and actually take action?

Large groups can have more position power and can include some people who will actually do little but who have the juice to say, “get this done.” The problem is that those large groups CAN play the political / appearance game and be on the team for “resume purposes” or to protect turf or whatever.

It is amazing how many managers do NOT really want changes and improvements to occur, feeling that if a team can come up with something better and implement measurable improvements and results, then they make that manager look bad for not doing that before. Yep — I have seen that crush a plant-wide performance initiative because “Frank” was retiring in a year and he thought of himself as, “The Best Plant Manager in the Whole Entire Company.” My work in a whole bunch of pilot programs clearly showed improvements were possible but, as soon as I left the project, you could hear the screeching sounds of brakes being applied — success was NOT possible.

You can spend lots of money on team surveys and all that — plenty of offerings to “help improve teamwork.” Me, I am a GFNJ * 

The key is to have a really effective team leader or moderator, to take good notes, to set dates and standards and report accomplishments and insure that the infrastructure works to allow teams and team members to succeed. I have always liked that metaphor of a good team as a good jazz band, where everyone gets some solo time but where the group is recognized for its overall results.

Becoming an orchestra is an awful lot harder to accomplish.

Small teams. Engaged. Collaborative. Focused on improvement. Dis-Un-Empowered and Dis-Un-Engaged. In a culture that will actually support implementation!

Git ‘er Done!   ( * Guy From New Jersey)

Andrea Goodridge then added some good comments that I simply copy below:

AndreaThanks for your comments Scott – over the last few days I have done some research into this very question – below is my output: 

M Ringelmann discredited the theory that a group team effort results in increased effort, by analysing the pull force of people alone and in groups as they pulled on a rope. As Ringelmann added more and more people at the rope, he discovered that the total force generated by the group rose, but the average force exerted by each group member declined. Ringelmann attributed this to what was then called “social loafing” – a condition where a group or team tends to ‘hide’ the lack of individual effort. 

Researchers (Hackman and Vidmar, Richard Hackman, QSM, Klein, Wheelan) identified a general preference for a small team, containing less than seven members, showing: that as a team gets bigger, the number of links that need to be managed among members goes up at an accelerating, almost exponential rate; and teams comprising between three and six members are significantly more productive and better developed than those made up of between seven and ten, and those with 11 or more members. When teams get over eight or nine people, it is cumbersome and the team breaks down into sub-teams. 

J Mueller explored the question of small versus large teams and noted in larger teams, people may not have the time and energy to form relationships that really help their ability to be productive; and also higher levels of stress were revealed for members of larger teams than for smaller teams. On a smaller team, people knew what resources were available and felt they could ask questions when things went wrong. 

Espinosa, Lerch and Kraut state as projects and teams grow in size and complexity, tasks and member dependencies become more numerous, diverse and complex, thus increasing the need for team coordination. It often means less cohesiveness and less participation from group members, and often the opportunity for “social loafing”. 

Wheelan reports that smaller groups are more likely to pass through all four stages of group development, and highly developed groups are more likely to be productive. 

Overall, small is the better way to go when forming a team!

So, you have my subjective thoughts on this along with the research that Andrea cited. I cannot imagine where I would build a large team, but I might have a larger “steering committee” or some such political body that would give a stamp of approval to the efforts of the smaller teams.

I do note, though, that many automobile manufacturers and similar kinds of design groups are using social networking and crowd sourcing to help generate ideas for improvement. I am guessing that the implementation teams would be small to be effective, however.

And there does seem to be good support for the reality of organizing small mobile teams rather than big ones, IF you give them the room to operate and the resources they need to be effective.

For the FUN of It!

DScott Simmermanr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.
Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at

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Dr. Scott Simmerman

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of the amazing Lost Dutchman's Gold Mine team building game and the Square Wheels facilitation and engagement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced global presenter. -- You can reach Scott at and a detailed profile is here: -- Scott is the original designer of The Search for The Lost Dutchman's Gold Mine teambuilding game and the Square Wheels® images for organizational development.

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