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Magic Numbers for Successful Teamwork

Nancy Settle-Murphy

People often ask me, "What's the ideal number of people to have on any given team to produce the best results?" My answer, "It depends." Several factors go into coming up with that magic number, such as clarity of goals and objectives, time available to get it right, ability of participants to work face-to-face versus virtually, access to shared technology tools, and quality of existing relationships. Given that remote meetings must be exceptionally well-designed and well-run due to their required brevity, virtual teams are typically more productive with the fewest possible number of people, unless people have access to virtual technology tools that are thoughtfully applied.

Here are my ideas for optimum participant numbers, based on meeting types and objectives. While I focus here more on virtual teams, many of my responses would be similar for co-located teams. I would appreciate getting an email from readers who may have different thoughts and experiences, which I can compile and include in a future issue.

  • Brainstorming: If you want a group of people to generate new ideas in a short time, 5 to 7 people is usually considered the ideal number for a diversity of perspectives, with people able to build on others' ideas quickly and easily. This range applies to synchronous (same time) meetings, whether face-to-face or virtual. However, if you have access to virtual meeting software that allows for asynchronous (any time) participation, you can easily generate ideas from a much greater number of people. In this case, you can save the real-time meeting for winnowing down ideas or fleshing out details related to favorite ideas.
    Tips: Be very clear about the problem/challenge that is the subject of the brainstorming, and make sure the idea generation and idea selection conversations are done in two parts, both due to time constraints and need to reflect on options before deciding.
  • Open discussion: If you really need to hear from everyone about their perceptions or opinions about a given topic, you'll probably find it hard to manage with more than 8-9 people on the call or in the room at once. Even if you use some type of asynchronous conference area in advance of the actual discussion, you'll still probably be able to have an open, productive conversation with just a handful of people at once.
    Tips: Establish ground rules in advance that spell out goals and scope of discussion, important boundaries and assumptions, input required, and extent to which this group has decision-making power. Make sure the questions you pose make sense to all, and have some techniques ready to engage everyone equally.
  • Healthy debate: When teams need an open debate as a prerequisite to making sound decisions, attempt to have no more than 7 to 9 people in the same conversation at once. (Odd numbers are best if people eventually need to weigh in during the conversation.) As with all of these conversations, you'll need to set firm ground rules about acceptable behavior and the means by which people will be stating their positions. (For example: Provide supporting facts for all positions. Argue the position, not the person.)
    Tips: Structure the call to ensure that all participants have equal time if they want it. Give each person time to state his/her position and supporting points with a time limit for each before other participants are invited to ask questions or make comments.
  • Conflict resolution: In general, the fewer people involved in real-time conflict resolution, the better. If the conflict is of a personal nature and is likely to be highly-charged, the conversation is usually best done with those in direct conflict with each other, unless a mediator or negotiator is needed. Resist the temptation to resolve a conflict via email, IM or some other means where unintended meaning or tone may be conveyed.
    Tip: The resolution can take place off to the side, but it may be crucial that you acknowledge the conflict out loud, so all team members know you're aware of it and plan to address it. This is especially important for virtual teams, who have few ways to solve conflicts by grabbing a cup of coffee or going out for a beer after work.
  • Decision-making: Before planning your meeting, identify and communicate who needs to have input, who recommends, who will make decisions, based on what criteria, and when. Again, the fewer people involved in the actual conversation the more productive the conversation will be, especially if there is likely to be some amount of content or disagreement. Consider how you can collect input from others prior to the discussion, such as through a virtual meeting area. Set accurate expectations about whether the decision-making is a true democracy where all have equal weight, or whether only some will participate in making the decision.
    Tip: If you're using a virtual meeting tool that allows for voting, try collecting votes in advance, either anonymously or not, prior to the discussion. Clarify the extent to which these votes will "count." This way, you can take a pulse from a large number of people and can see where the greatest differences of opinion lie, enabling you to zero in on certain areas during the live discussion.
  • Consensus-building: It's almost impossible, even for seasoned virtual team facilitators, to intuit the meaning of silence that often follows the statement: "Silence is consensus." That's because silence from a virtual team member can in fact mean many things: a lack of understanding, fear of embarrassment, desire to go along with the group, or simply that one has drifted into his or her inbox. Find ways to make sure you hear from everyone with his/her opinion, and allocate sufficient time before you close the meeting.
    Tips: Start with those most likely to be influenced by others. Use virtual conferencing technology to gather ideas if you have a large group, or if you suspect that some people will feel inhibited by others. If you believe that some felt pressured to agree, or if you feel they may not have realized what they agreed to, follow up with individuals to make sure they really buy into the group's decision.
  • Working groups/task teams: When people are part of a large virtual team whose members have few opportunities to work face to face, it's often very tough to develop the kind of trust members will need to collaborate successfully, especially when they're under pressure. Consider breaking work into discrete tasks or smaller projects, and assign 2-4 people to work together. (If significant brainstorming is required, this subteam can enlist the help of others for this phase.) This way, they'll have the opportunity for the kind of in-depth conversations where trust can be created.
    Tips: Consider assigning people based on their need to collaborate, as well as the skills and experience they bring to bear. Encourage them to create their own ground rules and ensure that one of them addresses the need to have regular real-time conversations.

While it's true there's no one "best" number of team participants that can apply to all situations, it's generally best to limit the number of people in any given real-time conversation only to those who really need to participate. Keep in mind that there are numerous ways to invite other ideas and viewpoints before or after your meeting. It requires considerably more effort to think through the many different ways a variety of people can contribute to a given conversation, and the time invested up front in the planning phase will reap big rewards later on.


Related Reading

Drive Out Distractions and Reclaim Your Time

Forego Face-to-Face and Make Virtual Meetings an Everyday Reality

Cutting to the Chase: 8 Essential Steps for Faster, More Engaging Meetings


About the Author
Nancy Settle-Murphy is a facilitator of remote and face-to-face meetings, trainer, presenter and author of many articles and white papers aimed at getting the most out of remote teams, especially those that span cultures and time zones. Go to Nancy's Guided Insights Web site for more information about her services, including workshops and webinars.


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