Monthly Archives: October 2012

Size Does Matter Especially for Teams and Tribes

I am frequently asked about the optimal size for a team. Like many leadership and team issues the answer is “it depends.” We can, however, look at some of the parameters regarding team size and gain a bit more awareness of the pertinent issues which will help us to develop higher performing teams.

Ache Hunting

For starters, let’s look at the earliest teams—foraging or raiding parties. Anthropologists have studied primitive tribes with an understanding that their behavior is most likely indicative of Paleolithic, that is pre-agricultural human behavior, and therefore a natural or instinctive team size.

The Dani tribes of western New Guinea gather hunting and raiding parties of 12-50 people whereas the Aché in Paraguay forage in groups of 6-42, with an average of 18. Other anthropologists have recorded local groups of about 25 people, although the group size may be limited by the availability of nearby food. On a larger scale, it is felt that full tribes, alliances, or coalitions consisted of approximately 500 individuals. To me, this feels like the largest size group one can have an immediate influence on.

Based upon research on team size, I feel that four major factors are in play:

  • Focus
  • Process losses
  • Communication
  • Diversity of viewpoints, knowledge, skills, and abilities

Small teams are able to focus well on very specific tasks. As the team’s scope or goals increase in number the team may need to increase in size. A small team requires very little infrastructure, communicates easily, is generally very flexible, and can adapt to new information quickly.

A larger team requires more structured processes, creating what we call process losses, taking time away from task work. All teams must find a comfortable balance between time spent on tasks and time spent on processes.

Think of communication channels as the wiring or nervous system for the team. As team size increases these channels and processes must be formalized to ensure all team members have access to information. Many tools are available today for the storage and sharing of team documents.

Diversity is an important factor, especially in groups requiring innovation. I’m not talking about gender and cultural diversity here, but more importantly diversity of viewpoints, knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs). At one extreme, if everyone on the team has the same KSAs, then there is no need for a team except to add more bodies to complete the same task. At the other extreme, if the KSAs and viewpoints of the team members are so radically different they may be unable to communicate and understand each other’s ideas. A balance is important here. A team should be composed of individuals who each bring some unique value to the table that may enhance or build upon others’ ideas. Some studies have shown that larger groups will generate more ideas in creative settings although there will certainly be a point at which diminishing returns begin.

As you build your team, as always, begin with your goals and determine the knowledge, skills, and abilities you will need. Then make an estimate of the number of people the tasks will require and where the people will be located. This will determine the types of communication channels you will need to put into place. Determine the stages of your project and the processes you will need, and how much time you wish to devote to agreeing on and creating the processes. Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate these decisions along the way and make adjustments as appropriate.


  • Natural team size ranges from about six to 50
  • Small teams are likely required to focus on very specific tasks
  • Determine the knowledge, skills, and abilities required, and then the number of team members
  • Allow the team to create the communication channels they feel are needed
  • Become aware of the amount of time spent on team processes vs. task and adjust as appropriate

Keywords: leadership, I/O psychology, industrial and organizational psychology, team size, team diversity, communication, process


  • Bales, R. F. (1953). The equilibrium process in small groups. In T. Parson, R. F. Bales, & E. A. Shils (Eds.), Working Papers in the Theory of Action (pp. 111-161). Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
  • Birdsell, J. B. (1968). Some predictions for the Pleistocene based on equilibrium systems among recent hunter-gatherers. In R. B. Lee & I. DeVore (Eds.), Man the Hunter. New York: Aldine.
  • Dennis, A. R., & Wixom, B. H. (2002). Investigating the Moderators of the Group Support Systems Use with Meta-Analysis. Journal of Management Information Systems, 18(3), 235–257.
  • Gallupe, R. B., Dennis, A. R., Cooper, W. H., Valacich, J. S., Bastianutti, L. M., & Nunamaker, J. F., Jr. (1992). Electronic brainstorming and group size. Academy of Management Journal, 35(2), 350-369.
  • Heider, K. G. (1970). The Dugum Dani. New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.
  • Hill, K., Hawkes, K., Hurtado, A. M., & Kaplan, H. (1984). Seasonal variance in the diet of Ache hunter-gatherers in eastern Paraguay. Human Ecology, 12(2), 101-135.
  • HĂĽlsheger, U. R., Anderson, N., & Salgado, J. F. (2009). Team-level predictors of innovation at work: A comprehensive meta-analysis spanning three decades of research. Journal of Applied Pscyhology, 94(5), 1128-1145.
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Evaluating Performance: The Confounding Role of External Factors

As a leader in a business organization we are often required to assess the performance of team members. When a someone has not performed up to our expectations one or more factors may be at play. An easy response may be to believe that the individual is not up to the task, but it may also be a case where external, or situational factors are creating headwinds too large to overcome. Perhaps the team member is in a role that is not a good match for his or her knowledge and skills, or that the task is ill-defined.

I find the issue of external factors to be the most difficult to resolve. Let’s look at a few examples. Suppose you were Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, and had to deal with a broken map application in the new iOS release. The data for the application was purchased from several companies and apparently the way it was used or integrated caused some problems. In this case—to us—it seems pretty clear that outside factors were not part of the problem. The individual in charge of the application should have had control of the data, application development, and integration of the multiple data sets. However, suppose this individual was told that the application would be released no matter what shape it was in. Now that’s another story and would point to an external factor as a major contributor to the problem.

Let’s look at another issue, this time a more contentious one—that of the leadership of President Barack Obama during the severe financial downturn beginning in 2008 and continuing until the present day. In this case the opinions vary widely. Some individuals maintain that the President and his fiscal policies have prolonged the suffering and slowed the recovery, while others claim that he has done the best he can with the situation—that it is bigger than he and the Federal Reserve can easily fix. While some people want to replace the President in this election due to poor performance, others feel he couldn’t have done any better than he already has with these profound external factors and needs to remain in office.

A Job Performance Model

Now I’d like to look at what the research says, beginning with the definitions.

  • Behaviors are the actions, positive and negative, that people exhibit.
  • Situational factors are forces not under the individual’s control which may positively or negatively impact the individual’s results.
  • Results are the states or conditions which changed because of the individual’s behaviors and that were helped or hindered by situational factors.
  • Organizational value is the worth associated with results or individual behaviors.
  • Performance is the expected value an organization would receive from an individual’s behavior.

Take the example of a salesman for an auto parts supplier who I’ll call Walter. In 2007 about 16 million automobiles were sold in the US. Walter calls on all the US auto manufacturers and beats his quota month after month. Based on results we would consider him to be a high performer. Fast forward two years to 2009. Less than 11 million cars are sold in the year. Walter doesn’t hit quota one month—his sales are down considerably. Based on his results we could argue that Walter’s performance has taken a nose dive.

In this case, though, it’s quite easy to see the moderating effect of the situational factors. Of course it’s not usually so easy to see and that’s when you get to earn your paycheck.

Using our model of job performance let’s turn back to President Obama. Some would argue that his behaviors have been poor and therefore his job performance is poor. Others will argue that his behaviors have been on the mark but that the situational constraints are so significant that what we have is the best one could expect. I won’t jump into that fray, though.

To truly assess your team member’s performance stay in touch with their activities and ask what tasks they are working on and the processes they are using. Observe their interactions with others to determine how they are helping or hindering team performance. Do they seem to have the knowledge they need to perform their job, and if not do they seek input from others? Are they able to utilize their knowledge and skills to create value? Do they show commitment to the tasks at hand? Ask about external factors and their effect on the output they are generating.

Your ability to assess a team member’s performance and utilize them in the most effective manner can have a huge impact on your overall team performance. If you remain diligent and committed to this effort you will reap significant rewards.


  • Results are a function of individual behaviors and situational, or external factors
  • Job performance is a function of individual behaviors
  • External factors can radically enhance or hinder an individual’s results

Keywords: leadership, job performance, job evaluation, appraisal, situational factors, situational constraints, behaviors


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