Dealing With a Wide Span of Control
How to Cope With Managing a Big Team
Elise manages a team that has grown from five people to 15. Now, her boss wants to merge it with another team, which will double its size overnight.
Elise is pleased that she's seen as capable of taking on the extra responsibility, but she already feels like she is being pulled in too many directions. She's so busy supervising so many team members that she struggles to complete her own work. After the merger, she knows that she'll be leading even more people, with a broader mix of roles and bases in other offices and countries.
The size and complexity of her team poses challenges that she's never faced before – she simply has too wide a "span of control." In this article, we explain what that term means, and we explore techniques and strategies for dealing with it.
What Is a Span of Control?
The term "span of control" first appeared in the 1921 book, "The Soul and Body of an Army," by Sir Ian Hamilton, a general in the British Army. He argued that military leaders became less effective as they had more people reporting directly to them.
The term has been adopted by the business world to refer to the number of people who report directly to a manager, and is sometimes known as the "management ratio."
Spans of control can be wide or narrow. They reflect how hierarchical a management structure is. For example, a CEO may technically be in charge of hundreds of people, but his or her span of control covers only those departmental heads who belong to the senior management team.
The Pros and Cons of a Wide Span of Control
Having a large number of people in your team can seem like a mark of status. You've been entrusted with managing them all, so that's a good thing, right? Well, a wide span of control does have its advantages. A "flatter" organization with fewer layers of management can mean better communication, and quicker decision making and response times, as there is less bureaucracy.
But the flip side is that a wide span of control often presents a manager with more problems than benefits. Supporting and supervising a large group of people can be mentally and physically draining. And the help that you can provide may be below par, as you have to spread yourself thinly to meet so many other people's needs.
Your own work may suffer because you are distracted by too many demands on your time. And the less time that you can spend with your team members, the more disconnected from them you may become.
Difficult dynamics can develop within large teams. Lazy people can "hide" more easily and get away with doing less. Office politics can become negative, rumors can get out of hand, and bullying can emerge. Managing such a group becomes even harder!
Finding Your Optimal Span
Everyone has an optimal span of control. When you go beyond it, your effectiveness begins to suffer. So if your span of control has become too wide, your priority has to be to reduce it. But to what, and how?
Opinions vary about the ideal size of a team. For example, in their 2010 book, "Decide and Deliver," business consultants Marcia Blenko, Michael Mankins and Paul Rogers argue that seven people is the ideal span. However, other research shows that CEOs now have an average of 10 direct reports – almost double the number that they had in the mid-1980s. Some commentators even suggest that a span of 15-20 people is workable.
Your optimal span of control depends on your own situation. Here are some key criteria to consider:
- Your skills and abilities. The more experienced, energetic and organized you are, the wider span of control you can handle.
- Your people's skills, motivation and abilities. Your team members will need less supervision if they are well trained, knowledgeable and motivated. You can delegate more tasks and responsibilities, and so manage a wider span of control. You can't afford to be so hands-off with inexperienced or poorly performing teams.
- The type of work. People working on straightforward tasks need less support and supervision than those doing more complex work.
- The size of your organization. Wider spans are more common in small businesses, as entrepreneurs and founders often try to keep control of as much of their organization as they can. Large organizations are often more hierarchical and have narrower spans.
- The business environment. If your business environment is stable, you can manage more people than you can if you're operating in a volatile or uncertain one.
Dealing With a Wide Span of Control
When you've established your optimal span of control, you can adopt a number of strategies to help you to work toward it. Or, if reducing your team's size isn't an option, you can aim to make your role more manageable.
1. Review Your Team Structure
Consider splitting a large team into smaller groups and appointing a team leader for each one. Then devolve some of your authority and delegate some of your tasks to those leaders, reducing the demands on your time while narrowing your span of control.
Also, think about hiring an administrative assistant. Having someone handle the more "everyday" aspects of your role allows you to focus on what only you can do.
If you don't have the budget to recruit, you may be able to promote or appoint internal people to supervisory positions. Your more ambitious team members will likely see this as a welcome opportunity for development and career progression.
2. Reduce People's Dependency on You
Is there any way that you can pull back on elements of your role? For example, if you tend to micromanage, try to give your people more freedom and encouragement to use their initiative. Explain that you want to hear about potential solutions, not just problems!
Set clear objectives, rules and policies. These remove uncertainty and ambiguity, so you'll spend less time clarifying and explaining things to your people. Instead, you can put your energies into coaching, mentoring and appraising, and end up creating a team that effectively organizes and manages itself.
Take a look at our Book Insight into "Holacracy" by Brian J. Robertson to find out about the practicalities of setting up self-managing teams.
3. Review Your People's Tasks and Activities
You can manage a wide span of control more effectively when tasks are kept straightforward and simple. Look at the way that your team members work, and the processes that they follow. Anything that you can do to reduce the complexity of tasks, or of the relationships between you and your people, will help to make things more manageable generally, not just with regard to spans of control.
4. Look After Your Own Needs and Responsibilities
As we have seen, it's important that you encourage your team members to take more personal responsibility. And it's equally important that you develop your own personal accountability. If your people can see that you take ownership of your actions and choices, that you use your time effectively, and that you set a good example, they will likely support you when you need it, and they will trust your leadership.
You need to be highly capable yourself to manage a wide span of control, so don't neglect your own development needs. Keep your skills current and move with the times.
Most importantly, look after your own health. Managing a wide span of control can create pressure, which can tip over into stress and result in significant health problems. If the pressure of managing a wide span of control gets too much, speak up and bring the problem to your manager's attention. Your overload could indicate a wider issue, and it might be that your boss needs to overhaul the reporting structure across the department.
"Span of control" refers to the number of people who report directly to a single manager. A manager with a narrow span of control is responsible for a small number of people. A manager with a wide span of control oversees a large number.
There's no universal agreement on what makes an "optimal" span of control. Each situation and each manager is different, and various factors influence the span that's most appropriate for each one.
If your actual span of control is wider than your optimum one, you can take a number of steps to help you to cope, including splitting up your team, providing systems and training to your team members, setting clear policies and goals, redesigning job descriptions, and guarding against stress.