Using ONA to Find Optimal Team Size

Recently, we’ve been speaking with clients who are considering “flattening” their teams by removing some middle management layers from their org chart.

One of the ways that they trimmed headcount was by reworking their manager spans.  Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg commented:  

“I don’t think you want a management structure that’s just managers managing managers, managing managers, managing managers, managing the people who are doing the work.”

Amazon, Twitter, and Shopify appear to agree with Zuckerberg’s contention that middle management has become bloated.  They similarly announced moves to cull management layers – or incentivize managers to step into player-coach IC roles – with the goal of speeding up time-to-market and reducing overhead costs.

But is flattening a good idea?

Some have warned that flattening is a pernicious influence on company culture.  

It limits perceived career growth opportunities for junior employees looking to move up the ranks, spurring attrition.  It spreads managers’ attention across more direct reports, decreasing time available for coaching.  And it can contribute to burnout as individual contributors are asked to do more of the “blocking and tackling” coordination that managers previously took on.

So how do you weigh those potential long-term impacts against the immediate gains in cost reduction?

Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) can help us answer that question.

Speed vs Span

When you flatten an organization, you’re increasing manager span with the intent to decrease decision-making time.  With fewer layers of approval, the assumption is that work gets done faster.  But with more direct reports, manager span is stretched, which may degrade the quality of the work.  

So how do you strike a balance between speed and span?  Here’s what the data tell us.

Determining Max Team Size

Many of us might feel that more time with a manager is better than less.  (Unless you’ve worked for some real jerks, in which case I’ll understand if you disagree.)  

When we look at eSat survey scores, we find that more frequent 1:1s with your manager correlates closely with stronger engagement and retention.  We also see that manager involvement in the work itself (ex: reviewing code, joining key customer meetings) correlates with higher reported productivity, in most circumstances.

As teams increase in size, two things start to happen:

  1. Managers become overloaded and have less time for their own individual work (ex: inputting forecasts, doing QA).  When that happens, we also see manager workdays expand; longer workdays increase the risk of burnout.
  2. Managers also have less time for each individual team member.  We see 1:1 frequency fall along with a drop in manager participation in key work moments.  As a result, IC engagement and self-reported productivity decline.

Data also indicate that Managers with larger teams tend to work significantly longer hours. Those with over 7 reports are more likely to work 10 to 13 hour workdays – a range associated with greater risk of burnout.

Setting Minimum Team Size

Conversely, if a manager has too few direct reports, we often see the team suffering from over-management.  Comic strips are full of micromanagers, and it’s easy to unintentionally become one if your team is too small.  

Looking at the data, we’ve found that when a manager has fewer than 4 direct reports, the team is more likely to suffer.  While more time with a manager is generally better, IC sentiment turns negative when managers are overly involved in work details.  Some indicators of over-management include:

  • Attendance in majority (~60%+) of client or partner meetings
  • Comments in high proportion of (~75%+) collaboration docs or JIRA tickets
  • Frequent DMs to the IC’s collaborators (ex: the IC’s cross-functional partners)

Other Factors to Consider

While the data suggests that 4-7 direct reports per manager is optimal, those thresholds can vary by role and type of work.  

  • Collaborative Intensity:  Some work requires more hands-on collaboration (ex: engineering) while other work may benefit from fewer cooks in the kitchen (ex: sales dev).  
  • Seniority: More junior teams and new managers can benefit from smaller spans - ideally less than 5 directs per manager.
  • Remote Work:  Building relationships remotely requires more time and attention than building connections onsite, so smaller spans are ideal for distributed teams.
  • Player-Coach:  If managers are still expected to perform some IC duties, then a smaller span (fewer than 4 directs) would be necessary.

Using Organizational Network Analysis (ONA), we can identify which parts of the organization are prone to micromanagement and which are prone to undermanagement.  With this data in-hand, you could evaluate speed versus span at the departmental level to improve efficiency while maintaining employee engagement.

REquest a demo

Get Started