From the Ask Tom mailbag –
How many people can a person effectively manage?
This is a great question. As I travel around North America, I talk to hundreds of managers each year, there is always this question, stated in different ways.
- How many people can one person effectively manage?
- What is the appropriate span of control?
- When does a manager get spread too thin?
To answer this question, we need to reframe the assumption. It is not a matter of management or control, it is a matter of accountability. Here is my reframed question –
- How many people can one manager be accountable for?
This shifts our understanding of the role and helps us answer the question. The magic maximum number is “about” 70. But it depends. It depends on the variability of the work. If the work is very repetitive and work instructions seldom change, one manager can be accountable for a fairly large group. If however, if the work changes from day to day, hour to hour, where work instructions must be adapted constantly from a set of guidelines, that number may drop to four.
Let’s take a military example. One drill sergeant, in basic training, where work instructions are repetitive, may be accountable for the work output of a high number of raw recruits. On the other hand, in a Navy Seal team, with specialized missions requiring high levels of judgment which may change minute to minute, one team leader may only be effectively accountable for five or six team members.
What is the level of work on your team, what is its variability, how much judgment is required related to work instructions, what is the risk of underperformance? Those are the questions you have to answer first.