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Right-sizing Your Team

By Patrick Lencioni - November 2008

Right-sizing has to be one of the more detested words in modern business language, mostly because the use of it often indicates a lack of courage. Rather than come right out and say ‘lay-off’ or ‘firing,’ too many leaders announce that they are going to right-size their organization, as though this will somehow change the reality of what they are about to do, which is eliminate jobs and let employees go.

Of course, eliminating jobs and laying people off is a reality of business and no one can fault a leader who has to make those difficult decisions as long as they do it with appropriate discernment and gravity. What is ironic to me is how often executives fail to step up to the plate when it is time to do what the term right-sizing actually means, particularly when it comes to dealing with their leadership team.

So many executive teams I deal with are simply too big. Whether they have eleven or fourteen or eighteen members, they become gangly and cumbersome, making it impossible to be nimble and responsive in their responsibilities to steer their organization through rough waters, or even relatively calm ones.

So what is the right size for a leadership team? Somewhere between three and eight. Why? Because groups larger than this almost always struggle to effectively use the two kinds of communication that are required of any organization.

Chris Argyris, a professor at Harvard, came up with the idea years ago that people need to engage in both ‘advocacy’ and ‘inquiry’ in order to communicate effectively. Advocacy amounts to stating an opinion or an idea, while inquiry is the act of asking questions or seeking clarity about someone else’s opinion or idea. Frankly, one part advocacy and two parts inquiry is a mix I like to see on teams.

However, when there are too many people at the table, inquiry drops off dramatically, mostly because people realize that they’re not going to get many opportunities to speak so they weigh in with their opinion while they have the chance. Like a member of congress or the United Nations, they aren’t going to waste their precious time at the pulpit to exploring the merits of a colleague’s proposal. Where is the glory in that?

But when the team is smaller, two things happen. First, trust can be exponentially stronger. That is simply a matter of physics. Second, team members know that they’ll have plenty of time to make their ideas heard, even if they do more inquiry than advocacy. This leads to significantly better and faster decisions. That’s worth repeating. Better AND faster. Those large teams I referred to before often take three times longer to arrive at decisions that prove to be much poorer, often the result of a grope for consensus.

So, how does a leader go about right-sizing a team?

First, understand the reason for having such a large team in the first place. Too often, they put people on the team as a reward, or to placate them for another unrelated issue. “I’ll put Fred on the executive committee. Then he won’t feel so bad about having part of his organization taken away.” Or maybe, “the merger has been painful for everyone. I’ll just have two VPs of sales at the meeting. No need to alienate anyone right now.” Along the same lines but for somewhat different reasons, they fall for the inclusivity plea, trying to demonstrate to the organization that they are open to many different opinions and that they value everyone’s input.

Once a leader has come to terms with why the team has grown so large, it becomes time to right-size the team. The key to doing this is to avoid the band-aid approach, which involves painfully choosing people to take off the team, one at a time. A better method is to create a new team, starting from scratch. That means if you have twelve people on the team, rather than winnowing it down to ten or nine, try forming a real executive team with just four or five. Add one or two more from there if necessary, and unapologetically explain to the old team why the new one is necessary, and why you’ve formed it the way you did.

You can keep the old team intact for other purposes, like communication and development, but not for making the regular decisions that must be made quickly and with the right mix of debate and decisiveness.

One of the things you’ll learn is that the people who are not on the new team will probably thank you. In many cases, they see and experience the dysfunction of too many members, and while there may be a temporary sting at not being on the new one, any good executive will be mature enough to see the benefits to the organization overall. And if they aren’t mature enough to do that, you probably shouldn’t have had them on the team in the first place.