How Many People Can One Person Manage?

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Question:
How many people can a person effectively manage?

Response:
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.

3 thoughts on “How Many People Can One Person Manage?

  1. Gordon

    I like your observation – its about the type of work being performed. In a factory setting, for example, where people spend all day producing parts, the manager can have a large organization as the work is consistent and very well defined. In a higher demand and more fluid work environment, the team must be smaller.

    From the perspective of getting things done, a larger team is better as you’re able to maneuver work around more readily. In contrast, mentoring and helping employees grow is very important but increasingly difficult with a large team.

    As a data point from my own experience, being in a highly dynamic environment with frequent change, 20 people is nearly impossible.

    Reply
  2. Ian Johnson infinite group

    A good rule of thumb is one manager can effectively manage 10-20 people at one time. This can be modified depending on what tasks they are supervising the team with and their skills at managing. If you have an experienced manager that has to supervise a team with a simple task, the number of people he can manage effectively can increase greatly.

    Reply

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