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Magazines > Information Today > July/August 2024

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Information Today
Vol. 41 No. 6 — Jul/Aug 2024
Insights on Content

The Optimal Size of a Team—And Why It Matters
by Marianne Kay

At the beginning of my career, I didn’t pay too much attention to the size of the team I was working on. It came with the job and wasn’t something I could easily change. After being in a variety of work environments over a number of years, I noticed that a team’s size has an impact on its productivity, effectiveness, and happiness. I worked on teams that consisted of five or six people and teams that had 20 people or more. In large organizations, in addition to working with your own team, there was an expectation to work with colleagues from other departments. The most striking contrast that I experienced with regard to working with groups of vastly different sizes was in my work as a university lecturer. Teaching a cohort of 120 students in a lecture theater is very different from working in a lab with only six students at a time.


Most small businesses are founded by a group of people with a strong shared vision, and this defines the company’s competitive advantage. At the same time, hyperfocus on some aspects of the business may lead to gaps in other areas. For example, a company founded by experts in software development may not have a lot of skills in marketing.

When a team is overly reliant on outside services in order to deliver its product, this may be a sign that the team is too small. Hiring team members with complementary skills can make it more self-sufficient, which results in a better-quality product. The actual number of people that’s optimal in order to meet this goal depends on the nature of the business, but it’s often hard to achieve a well-balanced set of skills with a team that’s fewer than five people. Here are some other signs a team is too small:

  • The team finds it hard to keep the momentum because the flow of work is significantly impacted by holidays and unplanned absences.
  • The team has difficulty dealing with complex problems.
  • Timelines for delivering products and services are significantly longer when compared to those of the company’s competition.

Increasing the size of a team that’s too small can improve its overall productivity and maximize its potential to deliver business value.


A period of growth can be an exciting time. Having a wide variety of different perspectives generates a lot of new, stimulating conversations. Larger teams are also better-equipped to improve and nurture the company’s diversity. But with more people, lines of communication between team members grow exponentially, so more effort is needed in order to collaborate well. Decision making can become harder, leading to inefficiencies. Here are signs a team is too big:

  • Discussions and meetings go on too long and are difficult to manage.
  • Not everyone is heard, and some people disengage from active participation.
  • Small, informal sub-teams develop.
  • Decisions are made in a bossy manner, without an open discussion, in an attempt to cut through ineffective processes.
  • Coordination of work becomes difficult.

If changing the team size isn’t possible, one temporary workaround that can help is to formally agree to team substructures. This way, everyone is part of a smaller sub-team and has an opportunity to interact with colleagues on a more frequent basis, and no one feels left out.


An optimal team size is directly linked to the skills of the team members and the objectives they are trying to achieve. In Scrum, an Agile methodology adopted by many tech companies to help manage workloads, the recommended ballpark figure is between five and 11 people. This ties well with the limitations of people’s short-term memory, which covers about seven items, concepts, or people at any given time.

In larger organizations, when discussing the team size, it may be useful to think about it as the size of a core team. Just like teams in competitive sports rely on doctors, coaches, and administrative staff to support them, teams in large organizations have access to expertise that isn’t, strictly speaking, within their team, but is nevertheless easily accessible. These satellite roles and departments that provide assistance to multiple teams in a large organization are useful sources of knowledge, but they are not interfering with the daily interactions of the team to such a degree that they slow the team down. Ensuring that these relationships are well-established is really important.


It’s worth noting that changing a team’s size comes with some challenges. When a new team member joins, the team spends time helping them get up-to-speed; the short-term impact on the team is reduced productivity. Similarly, when someone leaves, handover of the knowledge and responsibilities needs to take place, and the team must adjust its ways of working because of this change.

While some staff turnover is inevitable in business, it’s the chaotic, badly managed arrivals and departures that can cause the most lasting damage. Drastic changes to the team structure—similar to those we’ve seen in many companies since the COVID-19 pandemic began—can significantly undermine the team’s ability to function well. Getting to know each other, learning to work together, and building trust take time. This isn’t a structure that can be quickly altered with no adverse impact. It’s important to communicate changes to the team ahead of time and monitor team stability as a metric directly linked to team effectiveness.


When teams grow organically, they may unintentionally become too big or too small for optimal performance. Adjust the team size so that it can have all of the aspects it needs in order to be self-sufficient, but be mindful that it doesn’t become too big that collaboration is ineffective. This leads to both business benefits and improved team morale.

Marianne KayMARIANNE KAY ( is a digital leader, author, speaker, and mentor who works on digital projects in large, complex organizations. Her areas of expertise are digital transformation, agile, leadership, mobile apps, and WCM. Kay currently works as an IT delivery lead at Yorkshire Building Society in the U.K.

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