Working as Small Self-Organising Teams

What is the ideal work group size to achieve maximum work performance?  How can thesse groups be best arranged in a workspace?  Doctrine within military and emergency combat agencies is to limit the span of control to 5-7 people.  A group of 6 is frequently acknowledged as an ideal environment to generate creative ideas and solutions to problems; think of a Jazz Sextet, the Scout Patrol or the military Navy Seals 'Six'. Within many team sports the number of team members range from 5-7. There is research to support that the same principles apply to work teams within office environments.

Much has been written in the context of military, sport, psychology and even neurology to support the concept of keeping the span of control and group size to between 5 and 7.  Most recently Hoegl wrote in "Smaller teams-better teamwork: How to keep project teams small" published in Business Horizons journal, that small work groups are more productive, support innovation, build trust, mutual respect and create a sense of identity:

"..teams of three worked better than teams of six did, which, in turn, worked better than teams of nine did. In addition, given the lower teamwork quality of teams of 9, these results suggest that teams with 10 or more members cannot really be expected to perform high-quality teamwork."

Psychologists refer to small goups of people as the foundation of personal wellbeing and relational co-ordination. Six facets have been found to support group quality; communication, coordination, balance of member contributions, mutual support, effort and co-hesion.  The benefits of small self managing work groups is best expressed by leading Human factors academic Christopher Alexander in "A Pattern Language":

"A man enjoys his work when he understands the whole and when he is responsible for the quality of the whole. He can only understand the whole and be responsible for the whole when the work which happens in society, all of it, is undertaken by small self governing human groups; groups small enough to give people understanding through face to face contact, and autonomous enough to let the workers themselves govern their own affairs."

Clustering of Small Work Groups

Most organisations will employ far more than 5-7 people.  Where this occurs, small work groups can be clustered into 5-7 work groups which we will call 'Domains'.  Each work group 'lead' will report to the Domain 'lead' - once again a small group of 5-7.  This can further repeat no matter how large the organisation.     To illustrate this, the diagram above represents a group of about 25 functional work groups that are clustered into functional domains. The illustration was developed for an emergency management operations centre.  Functional leads come together in the centre within the central multi-function marketplace.

How to Design Space for Small Work Groups

Small work groups of 5-7 people are able to be accommodated within a small work studio that provides desks, storage and a small stand up meeting table.  the sudio is able to be customised by the occupants depending upon the type of work.

Image Source: Grant Cheyne

While small work studios support an intimate atmosphere, they can restrict communicnations between groups.  According to Christopher Allexander in "A Pattern Language", this problem can be solved by arranging the small groups so that they have partial views of one another and they share common facilities.

Where two or more work groups fluctuate in size, temporary extension of the team into adjacent work studios or 'in between' available work points in other less formal but nearby work settings will be required.

Image Source: Grant Cheyne

Tags - Work Space , Teams , Work Teams , Workplace , Agile , Activity Based Working