Tag Archives: span of control

Span of Accountability (Control)

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I’ve been following your blog since you spoke at an event at our office in 2015. I see a lot of posts discussing timespan and organizational structures. What’s your view of “span of control” as it relates to organizational structures? The military has a 3-5 subordinate unit rule of thumb which makes sense for matters of life and death. Yet, I’ve seen organizations with people managing 20+ direct reports. This seems to be on the other end of spectrum and untenable not just from a managerial perspective but from a human/leadership perspective as well. Your thoughts?

Response:
I am not a military expert, so I am not certain of military rules of thumb related to span of control. Any readers familiar can jump in the comments.

Before I leap in, however, I want to re-frame the question. It is not a matter of management or control (even span of control), it is a matter of accountability. Here is my re-framed question – How many people can one manager be accountable for?

Elliott acknowledged a concept know as the Mutual Recognition Unit (MRU) which addressed your question. How many people can a single manager have on the team and remain an effective manager?

It depends. The maximum number Elliott placed was around 70. Beyond 70, it is likely the manager would begin to lose effectiveness. You have to remember the primary function of a manager is to bring value to the team’s problem solving and decision making. I can already see your skepticism through my internet connection.

For a manager to be effective with a team of 70, the work must be repetitive with low variability. The higher the variability in the work, the fewer allowable on the team.

Take a high-volume call center where customer support representatives respond to the same phone calls day after day. One supervisor may attend to teams as large as 70 before losing track.

Take a US Navy Seal team. How many on the team? I am thinking six. Why? Because the work is always variable with high levels of risk. One manager to a team of six.

So, it’s your organization. How do you assess the level of variability in the work? How much is repetitive? How much risk if the team gets it wrong? These questions will guide you to your answer.

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.