Small Number and The Discipline of Team

You’ve all heard it. You gather in some auditorium to hear the Chief Executive, or you open your morning email for the latest memo from the top and hear or read, “Remember: We’re all a team!” Nothing wrong with that. Leaders must encourage, shape and build a culture of shared purpose in order to have any sustainable performance and success. “We’re all a team” is leadership in action that, cynicism aside, is constructive.

But, the discipline of delivering team performance is not about huge groups and whole companies. It’s limited to a small number of people confronting challenges that best yield to¬†the team approach as opposed to the single leader discipline. You are all very familiar with the single leader disicpline — the management approach linked to a boss who has a small number of subordinates who together must deliver performance results.

Small number. It’s a very pragmatic limiting factor in applying the team discipline. Indeed, management experts have written for years about ‘span of control’ — a notion that applies to the single leader discipline. Once the number of direct reports gets beyond seven to ten folks, things start to ‘break down’ even for the single leader discipline. Bosses start having difficulty with effective communication, defining roles for subordinates and holding them accountable, and with establishing and implementing time efficient processes. Things start to fray at the edges when numbers get beyond ‘small’.

None of which means that things go to hell in a hand basket. We’re not talking a Category 5 disaster here. Just pressure. Just the kind of breakdowns that, with even larger numbers (say 20 or 30 or 40), almost inevitably lead to formalized subgroupings — to recasting the span of control for the single leader discipline.

Well, what experience teaches for the single leader discipline also applies to the team discipline. When numbers get above seven to ten, ‘things start to break down’. Only the ‘things breaking down’ are identifying and delivering on collective work products, defining and pursuing common purposes, common goals and commonly agreed upon working approaches; and, shaping a real sense of mutual accountability — that is, the key aspects to the team discipline.

So what?

Well, this morning when you show up at work, ask yourself about the most critical challenges facing the groups you are a part of. List out two or three. Then examine just how many people are in each group charged with delivering performance against those challenges. If you and, say, a handful of others are responsible for any given challenge, then your group is small enough to make choices about when to use the team discipline versus the single leader discipline. If your group is bigger than, say, ten — and especially if it is much, much bigger — then you and the leaders of that group might want to revisit ‘subgrouping’ — that is, breaking down the overall challenge into parts that lend themselves to ‘small number’ approaches.

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