Why Your Definition of Span of Control is Wrong (and How to Fix It)

“No man can command more than 5 distinct bodies in the same theater of war.”  

Napoleon I (1815)

span of control

And so began our oft-repeated dictate on how many subordinates one supervisor can have.  If you’ve taken a FEMA course on how to manage an emergency response, you’ve heard this chant ad nauseam about span of control:

“Span of Control is 3 to 7, with 5 being optimal.”

Right?

That means that every student, from every class, from every derivative class, and then their disciples all spout the same math.  That, in turn, leads crisis managers near and far to force that definition into every personnel configuration they perform or direct.  Ugh.

The problem though, sports fans, is that this Napoleonic, one size fits all approach is simply wrong.  Stacking a crew with more – or less – people than the task needs is poor resource management.  And poor resource management can lead to costly mistakes.  And who can afford a costly mistake?

Let’s break it down.

For starters, Span of Control is a tool to help managers manage better.  It is not a tool to help subordinates perform and complete a task better.

If the task that needs managing is complex and requires active managerial input, then a smaller ratio of supervisor-to-subordinate (span of control) is needed.

Example:  you are managing a team of people to team-carry a live panther while navigating an obstacle course that’s on fire.  On the edge of a cliff.  Blindfolded.  The supervisor will be busy directing traffic and the subordinates must be hyper dialed-in.  The team size will likely be as small as can reasonably perform the task.  Synchronicity reigns and any more than a small handful of subordinates would stretch the supervisor’s ability to supervise.  And the risk to the Team increases.

However, if the task that needs managing is not very complex and requires very little managerial input, then a larger ratio of supervisor-to-subordinate (span of control) is needed.

Example:  you are managing a team of able-bodied people to slowly skip from one end of a 1-acre field of allergy-free tulips to the other end of the field.  Each at their own pace.  The supervisor will not be very busy and the subordinates can self-direct their actions.  The number of people on the tulip skipping team can likely be as large as the field will accommodate.  Even a large group will not unduly tax the supervisor’s ability to supervise.  And the risk to the Team will NOT increase.

So, no matter how much time, money and people you have available to throw at a task, remember that establishing and maintaining proper span of control is more about risk management than it is about math.

It should be clear by now that there’s a level of risk in everything we do, right?

Lastly, to boil this down to the teaching point I use in my classes:

Span of control is determined by the complexity of your task and your level of risk tolerance.  If that ends up as an optimal team of 5, then so be it.

Connect with me if you want to chat more about this, okay?

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  • Nehat Koqinaj says:

    Yes Mike,

    How it is , with your perspective about Span of Control?
    Number of 5 is right and from my perspective, because ,my experience lead me based on our real event, or through our field exercises .
    We applied Span of Control , named more with the name of team management structure . This structure is more effective in sense of better management in field, with strictly defined role and functions, level of achievement for each of them, and most important, all members of Team Management or Span of Control must know each other and each other capabilities.

    All is from my perspective Mike,

  • Mike says:

    Hi Nehat, I discovered from repeated questioning that everyone seemed to have the same answer, regardless of the task being performed. That concerned me so I researched it.

    Because every situation is different, the people needed to perform that task must be different too.

    100 people can help me look for my keys in a parking lot v. only 4 others looking for those same lost keys in a burning house.

    It’s more about context than some arbitrary number.

  • Jeff Snider says:

    Mike. I agree completely. Your examples are great and I will be “stealing” them in future classes and conversations. Thanks!

  • Mike says:

    Many thanks, Jeff! Glad they’re helpful … thanks for spreading the word.

  • R Mesic says:

    Interesting – I just argued this very point in a CERT meeting. A teacher could have 30 students in a typical classroom. When I teach a firearms course we take our class of 30ish and put 8 to 10 on the firing line at once with no more than 3 under the supervision of each Range Safety Officer. Classroom time it’s 1:30. Dangerous skills time it’s 1:3 (and honestly it’s 1:1 because they manage transitions individually) — so we use both a flexible role adding leaders and splitting the group over time. Interesting thought that during the range portion each Range Safety Officer takes cues from the Range Control Officer – and there needs to be only one of those so that span of control exists.

    Radio comms support for runner welfare during marathons use one net control operator and hopefully dozens of stations reporting in. Not always, but hopefully there is a backup net control operator on the backup frequency such that in the event multiple incidents happen simultaneously they can address them better. This works because 1) emergency traffic is brief 2) people involved have skill and discipline 3) multiple incident pile-ups are rare. Skilled operators can break off into sub nets as required – but this is a significant challenge if not covered in the comms plan.

    This ties in with the “buddy system” – the distance you can manage and the lack of focus you can afford varies with the situation and risk. Fighting a fire you have a grip on your buddy and are intentionally focused on immediate scene safety. Searching for a lost dog you just need to keep tabs on their general direction and stay in earshot – don’t leave for the day without them. Treating a patient? Need to be close enough to be a good witness. All of these are really risk driven.

  • Mike McKenna says:

    To one who knows AND understands, Ron. Great examples … I agree completely. M2.

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