Only recently has real research gone into how teams form and the best way of going about structuring them to perform effectively. Data from the worlds of Anthropology, Psychology and Sociology can tell us plenty about the way a business should structure small teams. And how to scale these when they require real peoplepower to get to Maturity and beyond.
These are (obviously) the easiest of teams to establish.
The world is littered with Dynamic Duos from family life, friendships and working teams. We speak to each other one on one, even if presenting to a room full of people. We pair up in relationships and marriage. We collaborate easily with another person.
There are simple biological reasons for which pair-bonding is important as well as for working on all manner of less intimate tasks.
Pairs are the simplest building blocks on which every team is built. Studies have shown that there are 12 types of pair formations.
Too numerous to expand on here they range from those that have each other’s back to those which work because they are Yin and Yang and the mentor/protégée duo.
Thrios are the least stable of the team types. Because the Dynamic Duo is so strong a unit, one member is always on the sidelines. However, there have been some very strong three person teams throughout history.
There are three kinds of trios –
2+1 trios can be strong partnerships (partly because of the strength of the pairing) where the third person acts as an outside consultant or specialist.
But these are short lived and generally it’s the pair which gets credit for the work done.
Another scenario is where the +1 dips into the team as and when needed.
A famous 2+1 team invented the transistor in the 1930s at Bell Labs – Walter Brattain, John Bardeen and (their +1) William Shockley. It was Shockley who suggested the first two work on the project and pretty much left them to it.
He added his brilliance when the pair came across issues.
But acrimony came when the project was complete and he attempted to file the patent under his own name, leaving the two who had done all the work out of it.
Parallel Trios where two pairs of people working together share a member, whilst the other two members rarely interact.
This is one of the most powerful combinations possible. One reason is the pair who don’t interact much.
It enables the combination to consist of two individuals with outside roles (who can be the best at what they do) without having to worry about being compatible with everyone.
Only their compatibility with the middle member needs to be of concern.
An important parallel trio invented the microprocessor whilst at Intel in 1970 – Federico Faggin, Masatoshi Shima and Stan Mazor. Rarely where these three people seen in the same room. Faggin was the intermediary between the two outsiders.
In Serial Trios (rather than one member acting as go between) the three individuals divide their time, sequentially working with each other in pairs.
Here there’s no need for compromise between team members. So the unit is powerful in its output.
As each member is free to run at full speed with their individual tasks, the unit can recruit the very best people for the job.
Once again at Intel, the company’s founders are a famous serial trio – Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore and Andy Grove. These three built what would at one point be the most valuable manufacturing company on the planet and have been credited for creating the modern digital world.
Not bad for a tricky trio.
It worked so well because their talents fit nicely with typical roles at the top of a company – CEO, R&D Director and COO. Also, the relentless pace of growth at Intel meant that they were all constantly fully engaged in their individual tasks.
7 plus/minus 2
These are the most stable of teams – 5-7 members especially. But team stability can happen as high as twelve members.
Throughout the history of humankind, teams of 12 have been useful. Hunting parties with 12 team members have been discovered by Anthropologists going back 2.3 million years.
Other experts have found stable groups occurring regularly and functioning effectively at 4-9 members.
The British Army’s ‘Fire Teams’ have four soldiers.
A ‘Section’ of two Fire Teams (8 members) are commanded by a Corporal to make nine.
These historic groupings have formed for practical reasons. A ‘Squad’ in ancient times was the number of soldiers who could hear the orders of a Commander in the heat of battle – 8.
In Roman Legions it was the number who could share a standard tent, also 8.
There also seem to be genetic reasons for 7 plus/minus 2 being such a stable unit for humans.
Our short term memory is capable of briefly holding between five and nine items of information. 7 plus/minus 2 has been coined a ‘magical number’ by psychologist George Millar for this very reason.
The number six has a singular relationship with each number below it and can be made of two trios, three pairs or (with a separate leader) a pair/trio team.
Seven is historically associated with good luck. The Egyptian pharaohs (for example) reserved the number seven for themselves and organised their lives around it.
And, ever wondered why casino slot machines often have a ‘Lucky 7’ on their wheels? Now you know!
A team of nine people has thirty-six points of contact between the individuals. At this size, it becomes more difficult for one person to control – at the limit of their ability.
Robin Dunbar (a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University) has coined a series of ‘Dunbar Numbers’. He says that a team of 7 plus/minus 2 members is at the upper boundary of those with whom you can be truly close, like a family.
Teams of this size can be seen everywhere in sport (a rowing 8), the corporate business world (Boards of Directors), music (the Rolling Stones and Beach Boys), popular sitcoms (Friends, Cheers) and the typical Silicon Valley startup.
15 plus/minus 3
At this size a team has real heft and division of labour can take place.
A team of 15 plus/minus 3 can handle a proper hierarchy of management (with a second layer) which is separate from the rest of the team.
However, here lies the problem for small businesses. There must be a distinct chain of command for teams of this size. The leader must work through his or her subordinates (rather than dealing with the entire team themselves) which Entrepreneurs find difficult to do.
It needs a professional leader, who will devolve responsibility to management.
In the Army, leadership of 7 plus/minus 2 teams is given to a noncommissioned officer, who will be expected to join in the work – including battle. However, at the Platoon level (15 plus/minus 3), leadership is given to an officer who has been specifically trained for the task and will not get involved in the “work”.
Research shows that if a project team demands the work of 9, 10 or 11 people, it’s often more productive to bump the team up to 15 or 18. By doing this, an internal management superstructure can be formed.
Usually the additional cost is worth it.
So are there any famous 15 plus/minus 3 teams?
Well, you’ve likely heard at least one of them on a regular, if not daily basis.
If you’ll indulge my inner music geek, the house bands of several of the most prodigious recording studios, namely The Wrecking Crew, Booker T & the MGs and The Swampers, were all teams of 15 plus/minus 3 members.
Haven’t heard of those bands? You will have heard their music!
They recorded with the Beach Boys (notably recording all of the instruments for album Pet Sounds), Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers, Etta James, Simon and Garfunkel, the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Neil Diamond, Wilson Pickett the list goes on…
50 and 150
Beyond teams of 15 plus/minus 3, the next stable structure is 50 plus/minus 10.
Going back to Dunbar’s Numbers, 50 is the largest group of people on which an individual can have mutual trust. Trust becomes the defining element of teams this size.
At this level the team is fully self-sufficient. It will most likely not need outside contractors or suppliers for any functions, which can hold smaller teams to ransom.
At 50, business teams have a smaller overhead per employee and are more resistant to market shock, generally having the cash and inventory required to survive.
Dunbar has noted that (anthropologically speaking) 50 seems to be a historically stable team number – being the typical overnight camp size of traditional hunter-gatherers, such as the Australian Aboriginals or tribes of southern Africa.
150 is the original Number in Dunbar’s series. Teams of this size can be seen occurring throughout history and in life today.
It’s the average number of residents in a settlement from the Doomsday Book (completed in 1086 by order of William the Conqueror). And 150 is the average number of friends people have on Facebook.
Why this size?
Dunbar’s argument is it’s the maximum number which someone can have a genuinely social relationship with. The kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.
From here, stable team sizes go to 450 and 1,500, making for very large groups of people indeed.
So (as team sizes grow) it becomes more important for them to be structured appropriately in combinations of the stable numbers 2, 3, 7±2, 15±3, 50±10 etc.
In the business context, teams of 10 to 50 are the least stable because of the span of control.
Usually, businesses which have grown to this size have an entrepreneurial leader, who’s usually not a professional manager of people. In fact, often the very reason why he or she came to start their company is to get away from the hierarchy of business.
They become torn between doing the entrepreneurial work they love and managing people – which is probably not a strength.
In order to thrive, they need to set up a proper team structure. Then they should work on their business, not in it.
Often (for cashflow reasons) it’s difficult to grow business teams in jumps using these stable combinations. As a result, teams find themselves in dangerous middle ground in-between, meaning they could stumble and crumble at any moment.
By setting a structure in place (empowering team members to be self directed) leaders can help the stability of their team – until such time as they grow to the next stage.
If you enjoyed this article, you might want to talk with me about any issues you’re having with your team.
If that’s the case, then you can contact me for a free consultation – firstname.lastname@example.org