“No man can command more than 5 distinct bodies in the same theater of war.”
Napoleon I (1815)
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.”
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?
Who else do you know that needs to read this?
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