What is the Best Size for My Agile Team?

Anthony Mersino
September 28, 2017

I recently compiled a list of all the teams I had trained and coached since I began coaching in 2012.  Turns out that I have helped over 90 teams from 19 companies so far.  Wow!  Even I had not realized the number was so high.

The teams I trained or coached vary in many ways - technology, industry, company size, and product just to name a few.  The culture and diversity of the teams is also all over the board.  Some teams were just OK, and some were truly high performing teams.  And the team sizes vary quite a bit, from teams as small as four to teams as large as 13.

Lately I've become more curious about the relationship between team size, and team performance.  I know that four seems small, and 13 seems pretty big.  But is there an optimum team size that contributes to high performance?
 
As it turns out, Agile experts are not all aligned on this.  Most training courses refer to a 7 +/- 2 rule, that is, agile teams should be 5 to 9 members. Scrum enthusiasts may recall that the Scrum guide says teams should not be less than 3 or more than 9.  Jeff Bezo of Amazon was famous for what he called the 2-pizza rule, meaning, the team should be a size that can be fed by 2 pizzas.  Though I’m pretty sure that Jeff didn't have Chicago-style deep dish pizzas like Lou Malnatis in mind when he came up with that rule.  (BTW, Lou Malnati’s is the standard for feeding Agile Teams in Chicago.)
 


 
And to be clear, when referring to team size I am talking about just the team members, not the Scrum Master, PM, Product Owner or others.  And when I am talking about Agile teams, these are full time, dedicated team members.
 
In reflecting on my list of teams and thinking about their performance, I definitely feel like smaller is usually better.  Smaller teams tend to gel more quickly, are much more transparent, and tend to organize more quickly.  Growth and maturity seem to be inversely related to team size. The 90 teams on my list were all moving from traditional development to Agile and Scrum so it was important that they learned and grew quickly.  

Some of the challenges that seem to be more common with (though not exclusive to) large teams include:

  • Lack of ownership
  • Lack of transparency
  • Lack of psychological safety and trust
  • Reluctance to cross-train and build T-shaped skills
  • Increased specialization and sub teams (the “testing team”)
  • Scheduling / coordination challenges
  • Difficulty with participatory decision making

Smaller teams tend to be more focused, they move more quickly, and they get more done.  They are more nimble, and, er, dare I say it, more agile.
 
One of the last teams I helped transition from waterfall to Scrum was just 4 team members. The “Flexstars” have high morale and esprit de corps, and are well on their way to being a high-performing team.
 
Scrum co-founder Jeff Sutherland recently admitted to changing his thinking about team size. In his keynote at the Global Scrum Gathering in San Diego this year, Jeff said that he found that 5 was an optimal team size.
 
What do you think? What has been your experience with team size and team performance? Do you think 5 is better?  Or 7, 3 or 9? Please weigh in with your comments.

About Anthony Mersino

Anthony is passionate about helping technology teams THRIVE and organizations TRANSFORM.  He loves partnering with organizations to help teams with Agile thinking and the Scrum Framework.  He teaches Agile and Scrum as well as the cultural elements that are necessary for an organization to gain true business agility. Anthony has  authored numerous articles and two books: Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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