When it comes to teams, size counts! But what is the best size for your team and how do you know you’ve got it right? The answer will depend on the type of problem that you are trying to solve but it will likely be smaller than what you imagine.
Looking at classic examples of teams we can perhaps draw some inspiration.
The Surgery Team (approx. 6)
In an operating room there are several key players. Each essential to the successful outcome of patient care:
- Resident Surgeon
- Scrub tech
- Circulating tech
Depending on the complexity of the surgery there may be supplementary surgeons. Nurses may take on Scrub/Circulating tech roles if qualified.
Surgical teams are partly constrained by the space in which they operate. It wouldn’t be practical to have lots of people gathered around the body. There would not be sufficient room to operate. Having extra people involved in an operation would be an incredible waste of expensive, highly qualified resources.
There is no batching of work like a waterfall process in surgery. Each surgical team works together throughout the operation.
The special forces team (approx. 4)
The SAS organises its soldiers into troops of 16. Each troop comprises of 4–man patrol teams. Each trooper has a primary skill that they have specialised in. Additionally, each trooper as secondary level expertise in at least one other area.
- Air control
A trooper may get incapacitated during a mission due to the inherent danger of the job. Without having overlapping skills if one team member got injured there mission would likely be compromised and fail.
The size of the team is reflective of the need to operate covertly and to rapidly respond to changing circumstances. A larger team would be easily spotted and find it hard to evade their opposition.
Formula one pit crew (20)
A rapid stop in formula one can be the difference between a podium position and losing out on vital points. Within the pit crew each member has a very specific role that needs to be precisely synchronised.
Each wheel has a team of 3:
- Tyre gunner
- Tyre off
- Tyre On
- Rear Jack
- Front jack + back up
- 2x Stabilisers
- 2 x front wing adjusters
- Lollipop man
While pit crews have a team of 20 around the car, they are completely orchestrated. Once the car arrives, the lollipop man signals to the jack man. The jack man in turn signal to the gunners. The gunners signal to the tyre men then the process reverses itself.
The important thing to consider here is each individual only need concern themselves with the previous step in the chain. The left and right tyre men have no point of collaboration. Also consider, a pit crew has a limited task to perform and it is highly practiced. Even common failure scenarios such as a fire are highly drilled.
Large teams work when each team member has a limited, predictable and defined role. Large teams need to be well orchestrated by signals so that individuals know when to perform each task.
Jet fighter crew (2)
The classic two-person team from Topgun. Maverick and Goose. One pilot and one navigator. Each has their own specialism. However, the navigator is there to support the decision making of the pilot.
Is two too small? The jet fighter crew is a cross functional team. Between the two of them they have all the skills required to fly the plane and complete their mission. We can conclude that: so long as the team contains all the skills required to accomplish the objective, then they are sufficient.
Side note: Observers of the scrum guide will note the recommendation of 3-9. A team of 2 will find the overheads of the scrum framework too onerous and will lose efficacy. It is also unlikely that a team of two will have sufficient skills to get “done” in a complex software project.
Dynamics of teams
We have learnt that high performing teams exist in the range of 2-20. So how does this help?
We can see from these examples team size is a function of:
- The need to respond to change
- The space the team have to work in
- The variety skills required to achieve the goal
- The cross functional nature of individuals
- The complexity of the task. (Large teams for less complex work)
These teams apply empirical evidence over many years to find their optimal make up. Continually inspecting and adapting.
How can we create the right size team?
Here are some suggestions on how to think about the size of your team:
Understand the volatility and uncertainty of the requirements of your system. This will help determine how much agility is required.
Look at how big the code base is. Is there enough room for all team members to operate in without creating merge conflicts and delays?
Ensure the team is cross functional, such that it contains all the skills required to achieve the goal.
Achieve robustness and flexibility by developing secondary skills in team members, as opposed to adding extra team members.
Review the complexity of the work. How much uncertainty is there in the requirements and technology.
Use empirical data to adjust the size.
- Did you get working “done” software in a month or less?
- Can we complete a daily scrum/standup in 15 minutes?
- How easy is it to come to consensus or make decisions?
- Are there silos or tribes forming within the team?
- How many pizzas does it take to feed the team?
- How many concurrent missions or goals are we trying to complete?