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Optimal team size in agile methods

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

A canoe team of 9 representing optimal agile team size
A canoe team of 9 representing optimal agile team size

Optimal team size in agile methods

Scrum and agile teams are typically recommended to be between 9 and 11 people and that all the skill-sets required to get work done is included within these numbers.

Dunbar's number, a concept proposed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, suggests that the cognitive capacity for maintaining stable social relationships is limited to approximately 150 individuals. When applied to agile teams, this concept provides insights into team size dynamics. An optimal team size in the context of agile methods such as Scrum is often recommended to be between 9 and 11 people. This introduction will explore the rationale behind this recommendation.

Dunbar's number suggests that beyond a certain threshold, maintaining effective communication, coordination, and collaboration becomes increasingly challenging. Agile teams, which rely heavily on close collaboration and frequent communication, can benefit from adhering to this range. By keeping team sizes within 9 to 11 people, organizations can harness the advantages of smaller, more cohesive teams while ensuring sufficient diversity and skill sets to address complex challenges.

By understanding the implications of Dunbar's number in the context of agile teams, organizations can make informed decisions about team sizing and structure, ultimately fostering an environment conducive to effective collaboration, innovation, and successful project outcomes.

Problems with teams that are too big

Teams that exceed 11 people have various anti-patterns associated which makes the team less effective. Some of these include:

  1. Coordination and communication challenges: With a large team, it can become more challenging to coordinate and communicate effectively. Synchronizing efforts, aligning priorities, and ensuring everyone has a clear understanding of goals and tasks can become more complex.

  2. Increased complexity of decision-making: Larger teams tend to have more diverse perspectives and opinions, which can lead to increased complexity in decision-making processes. It may take longer to reach consensus or make critical decisions, potentially slowing down the progress of the Scrum team.

  3. Reduced individual accountability: In a large team, individual accountability can diminish. It may be more challenging to attribute specific responsibilities and track individual contributions. This lack of accountability can lead to a diffusion of responsibility and potentially affect team productivity and quality.

  4. Higher coordination overhead: With more team members, there is typically a higher coordination overhead. More time and effort may be required for planning, synchronization, and resolving conflicts or dependencies among team members. This can impact overall efficiency and productivity.

  5. Difficulty in maintaining focus: Large teams may find it more challenging to maintain a high level of focus and avoid distractions. With more people involved, it becomes crucial to ensure that everyone remains aligned with the sprint goals and stays focused on delivering value.

  6. Limited transparency and visibility: Large teams can face difficulties in maintaining transparency and visibility across all team members. It may be harder to keep everyone informed about the progress, impediments, and achievements within the Scrum framework. This can hinder collaboration and hinder effective decision-making.

To mitigate these disadvantages, it is important to establish effective communication channels, promote transparency, encourage self-organization within smaller sub-teams, and ensure clear roles and responsibilities are defined. Regular retrospectives can also help identify and address any challenges that arise from having a large team.

Advantages of small team in agile methods

Smaller teams in agile methodologies offer several advantages that can significantly impact productivity, collaboration, and overall project success. Here are some key advantages of smaller team sizes:

  1. Enhanced Communication and Collaboration: Smaller teams facilitate better communication and collaboration among team members. With fewer people involved, it becomes easier to share information, exchange ideas, and ensure everyone is aligned. Team members can have more frequent and meaningful interactions, leading to improved decision-making, faster problem-solving, and increased agility.

  2. Improved Decision-Making: Smaller teams often experience shorter decision-making cycles. With fewer voices and opinions to consider, it becomes more manageable to reach consensus or make quick decisions. This agility allows the team to respond promptly to changing requirements, adapt plans, and capitalize on emerging opportunities.

  3. Increased Accountability and Ownership: In smaller teams, individuals tend to have a stronger sense of accountability and ownership. With a clearer understanding of their responsibilities and the impact of their contributions, team members are more likely to take ownership of their work. This fosters a greater commitment to the team's goals, higher quality outputs, and a stronger sense of shared success.

  4. Better Focus and Efficiency: Smaller teams can maintain higher levels of focus and efficiency. With fewer distractions and dependencies, team members can concentrate on their tasks without being overwhelmed by excessive coordination or unnecessary meetings. This focused approach allows for faster progress, reduced delays, and improved productivity.

  5. Flexibility and Adaptability: Smaller teams are generally more flexible and adaptable. They can quickly adjust to changing circumstances, pivot strategies, and reorganize priorities. This agility is particularly valuable in agile methodologies, where responding to feedback and embracing change are essential for delivering value to stakeholders.

  6. Improved Team Dynamics: Smaller teams tend to foster stronger relationships and trust among team members. With fewer individuals, it becomes easier to build rapport, understand each other's strengths and weaknesses, and establish effective working relationships. This positive team dynamic enhances collaboration, promotes knowledge sharing, and encourages mutual support.

  7. Simplified Coordination and Synchronization: Coordinating efforts and synchronizing work becomes less complex in smaller teams. Communication channels are streamlined, and dependencies are easier to manage. This simplification reduces the overhead associated with coordination, leading to smoother workflows and increased efficiency.

While smaller teams offer numerous advantages, it's important to strike a balance and consider the specific needs and complexity of each project. The optimal team size may vary depending on the nature of the work, available resources, and the dynamics of the organization. However, by leveraging the advantages of smaller teams, agile organizations can unlock their potential for improved collaboration, faster decision-making, and higher-quality outcomes.


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