How To Structure Teams For High Performance

Only recently has real research gone in to how teams form and the best way of going about structuring them to perform effectively. Data from the worlds of Anthropology, Psychology and Sociology can tell us much about the way a business should structure small teams and how to scale these when they require real resource to get to Maturity and beyond.

Dynamic Duos

These are obviously the easiest of teams to establish. The world is littered with Dynamic Duos from family life, friendships and working teams. We speak to each other one on one, even if presenting to a room full of people. We pair up in relationships and marriage. We collaborate easily with another person. There are simple biological reasons for which pair-bonding is important as well as for working on all manner of less intimate tasks.

Pairs are the simplest building blocks on which every team is built. Studies have shown that there are 12 types of pair formations. Too numerous to expand on here (maybe in another post) they range from those that have each other’s back to those which work because they are Yin and Yang and the mentor/protégée.

Tricky Trios

These are the least stable of the team types, typically because the Dynamic Duo is so strong a unit, that one member is always on the sidelines. However, there have been some very strong three person teams throughout history.

There are three kinds of trios –

2+1 trios can be strong partnerships, partly because of the strength of the pairing, where the third person acts as an outside consultant or specialist. But these are short lived and generally it is the pair which gets credit for the work done. Another worthwhile scenario is where the +1 dips in to the team as and when needed. One famous 2+1 team is that which invented the transistor in the 1930s at Bell Labs – Walter Brattain, John Bardeen and, their +1, William Shockley. It was Shockley who suggested the first two work on the project and pretty much left them to it. He added his brilliance when the pair came across issues, but the acrimony came when they project was complete and he attempted to file the patent under his own name, leaving the two who had done all the work out.

Parallel Trios are where two pairs of people working together share a member, whilst the other two members rarely interact. These are typically the most powerful of the combinations possible. One reason for this is the pair which don’t interact much. This enables the combination to consist of two individuals with outside roles who can be the best at what they do without having to worry about being compatible with everyone. Only their compatibility with the inside member need be of concern. An important parallel trio in history was that which invented the microprocessor whilst at Intel in 1970 – Federico Faggin, Masatoshi Shima and Stan Mazor. Rarely where these three seen in the same room. Faggin was the intermediary between the two outsiders.

In Serial Trios, rather than one member acting as go between, the three individuals divide their time, sequentially working with each other in pairs. Here there is no need for compromise between team members and therefore the unit is powerful in its output. As each member is free to run at full speed with their individual tasks, the unit can recruit the very best people for the job. Looking at Intel again, the company’s founders are a famous serial trio – Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore and Andy Grove. These three built what would at one point be the most valuable manufacturing company on the planet and have been credited for creating the modern digital world. Not bad for a tricky trio. It worked so well because their talents aligned nicely with typical management at the top of a company – CEO, R&D Director and COO. Also, the relentless pace of growth at Intel meant that they were all constantly fully engaged in their individual tasks.


These are the most stable of teams. 5-7 members especially so, but team stability can experienced as high as twelve members. This has been seen throughout the history of humankind, with Anthropologists looking at teams of 12 in hunting parties going back 2.3 million years, of which the remains have been found in Ethiopia. However, other experts have found stable groups occurring regularly and functioning effectively at 4-9 members.

The British Army’s single ‘fire teams’ compose of four soldiers, a ‘section’ of two fire teams (8 members) are commanded by a corporal for a full team of nine. These historic groupings have formed for practical reasons. A ‘squad’ in ancient times was seen as the number of soldiers who could effectively hear the orders of a commander in the heat of battle – 8 – and in Roman Legions was the number who could share a standard tent, also 8.

There also seem to be genetic reasons for 7±2 being such a stable unit for humans. Our short term memory is cable of capturing and briefly holding between five and nine items of information and 7±2 has been coined a ‘magical number’ by psychologist George Millar for this very reason. The number six has a singular relationship with each number below it and can encompass two trios, three pairs or with a separate leader a pair/trio team. Seven has historical resonances with good luck. The Egyptian pharaohs, for example, reserved the number seven for themselves and organised their lives around it. Ever wondered why casino slot machines often have a ‘Lucky 7’ on their wheels?

The largest 7±2 teams are at the limits of our individual span of control. If we look at the combinatorics of teams of these numbers we can see that a team of nine has a network of thirty-six points of contact and becomes difficult for one individual to control.

7±2 teams have great functionality with numbers at the upper end of the scale being the smallest teams in which a dedicated leader can be in place.

Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University has coined a series of ‘Dunbar Numbers’. He has shown that a 7±2 team is the upper boundary of those with whom you can be truly close, like a family.

7±2 team combinations can be seen everywhere from sport (the Blue Ribband rowing event – the 8, basketball, Ultimate Frisbee) to business with corporate boards of directors, Music (the Rolling Stones and Beach Boys), popular sitcoms (Friends, Cheers) and the typical Silicon Valley startup.


This is the first size in which a team has real heft and division of labour can take place. A 15±3 team can handle a proper hierarchy of management, with a second layer, which is separate from the rest of the team. However, here in lies the issue for small businesses, there needs be a distinct chain of command for teams of this size, in which the leader must work through his or her subordinates, rather than dealing with the entire team’s membership.

At this size a team requires a professional leader, who will devolve responsibility for matters to management and the team. In the Army, 7±2 leadership is given to a noncommissioned officer, who will be expected to join in the work, including battle. However, at the Platoon level (15±3), Leadership is given to an officer who has been specifically trained for the task and will usually not get involved in the work.

Research shows that if a project team demands the work of 9, 10 or 11 people, it is often more productive to bump the team up to 15±3. By doing this an internal management superstructure can be formed. Usually the additional cost is worth it.

Famous 15±3 teams? Well, you’ve likely heard at least one of them on a regular, if not daily basis. If you’ll indulge my inner music geek, the house bands of several of the most prodigious recording studios, namely The Wrecking Crew, Booker T & the MGs and The Swampers, were all 15±3 teams. Haven’t heard of the bands? You will have heard their music as they recorded with the Beach Boys (notably recording all of the instruments for Pet Sounds), Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers, Etta James, Simon and Garfunkel, the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Neil Diamond, Wilson Pickett the list goes on…

50 and 150

Beyond 15±3 teams, the next structure of stability is 50±10. Here we can go back to Dunbar’s Numbers, with 50 being the largest group of people on which an individual can have mutual trust, which becomes the defining element of teams this size. At this level the team is fully self-sufficient and is most likely not to require outside contractors or suppliers for any functions, which can hold smaller teams to ransom. After 50, business teams have a smaller overhead per employee and are more resistant to market shock, generally having the cash and inventory required to survive.

Dunbar has noted that, anthropologically speaking, 50 seems to be a historic stable team number, being the typical overnight camp size of traditional hunter-gatherers, such as the Australian Aboriginals or tribes of southern Africa.

150 is the original Number in Dunbar’s series and can be seen occurring throughout history, being the average number of residents of a settlement from the Doomsday Book to the average number of friends people have on Facebook. Why this size? Dunbar’s argument is that this is the maximum number with which one can have a genuinely social relationship with, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.

From here, stable team sizes go to 450 and 1,500, making for very large groups of people indeed.

So, we can see that as team sizes grow, it becomes more important for them to be structured appropriately with combinations of the stable numbers 2, 3, 7±2, 15±3, 50±10 etc. In the business context, teams of 10 to 50 are the least stable because of the span of control. Usually, businesses which have grown to this size have an entrepreneurial leader, who is usually not a professional manager of people. In fact, often the very reason why he or she came to start their company is to get away from the hierarchy of business. They become torn between doing the entrepreneurial work they love and managing people, which is probably not a strength. Hence, they need to set up a proper structure for the team to thrive, whilst they work on their business, not in it. Also, often for reasons of cashflow, it is difficult to grow the team by jumps in these stable combinations and therefore the team find themselves in the dangerous middle ground in-between.

In my own experience, in my Family’s business and with Rowing Squads, teams over 10 become difficult to manage. In my Family’s business we did not have a proper hierarchy and we did not devolve responsibility to the team. Hence, we worked too much in our business, rather than on it. Over 10 members, the team became disparate and it was difficult to communicate, especially as they were based in multiple locations.

In Rowing, I have led squads of up to 50 athletes. These became too difficult to manage effectively and I ended up giving some of my power to senior members. Once they took responsibility for certain aspects the teams settled down. However, it is interesting to note that whenever I have coached squads of over 12 athletes, it has always boiled down to a much smaller core who rise to the top and compete at the highest level, with others either being left behind or leaving in a huff having not achieved what they want.

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