Management Avoidable high fructose random shit minutes

Seven Plus or Minus Three

A common question I am asked, “How big should the team be?” My immediate response: Seven plus or minus three. There is a not a lot of hard theory behind this guideline, just common sense.

To understand my reasoning, let’s do a little math. Let’s first assume you have seven folks on your team and that you spend time every week investing in each individual. At least 30 minutes for each person who reports to you via a 1:1 meeting. That’s three and a half hours – almost a half a day per week that is now properly invested in the team.

We’re going to need add a buffer for the inevitable random shit that emerges from a team on a weekly basis. I’m not talking about scheduled investment, I’m talking about the unexpected dispute that erupts between two teams, I’m talking about when Frank just quits, I’m talking about the unexpected work where you have to drop everything and immediately react. It doesn’t happen on every team every week, but when it does develop, it requires your full and immediate attention. How about 15 minutes per team member? That takes us to a guaranteed five hours and fifteen minutes now devoted to the team. This doesn’t include your staff meeting, design reviews, or other essential meetings, this is direct weekly investment in your direct reports.

Seven feels about right to me. Three quarters of one day a week to make sure folks are being heard, where you are sharing valuable context, and you are getting ahead of emerging issues. Thing is: you are kicking ass as a lead. More importantly, you’ve got seven directs and they, too, are kicking ass. You are fully and competently delegating to them and the velocity of the team is recognized as increasing. This is called success and success is always rewarded with additional responsibility and in that delightful haze of success you suddenly inherit three more teams which brings your directs to 10. Congratulations.

If we stick with our weekly investment of 45 minutes per team member, you’d jump to seven hours and thirty minutes of weekly proactive team investment, but here’s where it becomes harder. Our 15 minute random shit buffer does not scale linearly with team size, it grow more exponentially. Yes, these estimates are more art than science, but as your team grows, so does its complexity. Each individual and team added to your portfolio brings with it their products, personalities, and politics and that means more random shit. At 10 direct reports, I’m upping our random shit buffer to 30 minutes per person.

We’re now at 10 hours per week on team investment.

You might be able to absorb this time in your schedule. Many do. An equal amount take a look at their increasingly complicated calendar and think, you know, I could meet with my team every other week. BAM. You’re back down to five 1:1s per week at 30 minutes a pop. Two and a half hours. No problem.

Incorrect. You still have to account for the random shit buffer. Remember, this is time to react to the random shenanigans that emerge out of a team of people and not only is it guaranteed to occur, it’s your responsibility to aggressively handle these shenanigans. So two and a half hours plus another five for random shit. You’re still basically at a full day of team investment each week.

It is somewhere around this team size where leaders, especially new leaders, screw it up and to understand how they screw it up, you have to understand the relative value of the two buckets of time we’ve be allocating. You’ve got 1:1 time and you’ve got random shit time. Which of the two investments are a better investment of your time?

Your gut instinct might be that random shit time is more important because it has this sense of urgency about it. Frank is quitting. Two teams are fighting. Something urgently needs to happen and you appear to be the best person to handle this situation, so you do. Immediately. What could be a better use of your time? I’ll tell you: not letting the random shit situation occur in the first place.

High tech is in an incredible fucking hurry because we’re deathly afraid of becoming irrelevant, of being replaced, or being perceived as mediocre. As everyone is rushing around making sure that irrelevance is effectively avoided, we learn to react quickly… to everything. Here’s that response to your email at 11pm! I’ll be the first to speak at the meeting! Look at me, I am walking quickly every which way that I walk!

It is this hurry-based reactive mindset that might give you the illusion that random shit time is more important than 1:1 time, but I would argue that properly and consistently deployed 1:1 time eliminates future random shit time. Because you met three weeks ago and discussed what appeared to be a listless Frank, you moved him to a new team and he didn’t quit. Those teams are not fighting because you met with each of their leads last month and made sure each team felt heard. The proactive minutes you spend each week with your team might not contain as much energy, but they are far healthier minutes than unexpected, unhealthy, and avoidable high fructose random shit minutes.

My rules around 1:1s for direct reports are:

  • 30 minutes (at least).
  • Every week.
  • No matter what.

While it is not the only lens to look through when designing an optimal team size, it’s my belief the moment that when it becomes a struggle to spend 30 minutes a week with each of the folks on your team, it’s time to consider your team might be too big. New managers can handle less people, experienced managers more.

Seven plus or minus three.

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15 Responses

  1. Chris 9 years ago

    I think you mean “15 minutes per team member” in your description of the miscellaneous buffer. There’s no mention of multiple teams at that point in the article, so the math doesn’t add up otherwise.

    Otherwise a great article, as always. I love to see measurements and numbers applied to tech and managing, so I really enjoyed your analysis here.

  2. nkmcalli 9 years ago

    I absolutely love this article. Is there any chance you would update the language to be SFW so I could share it?

  3. Cads Oakley 9 years ago

    “There is a not a lot of hard theory behind this guideline, just common sense”.

    Bernstein and Lowy in Theory of Group Dynamics points out that 8 is the optimal size, and that below 6 and above 10 things get very problematic.

    Granted, this is dated research, and Tuckman doesn’t talk about sizes in specific, but I always find that it is interesting to see where our common sense attaches correctly to the research.

  4. j2-the-y 9 years ago

    Great article I just don’t understand the need for the swearing.

  5. Jon Bell 9 years ago

    Thanks for the post!

    Little typo here: “it’s complexity”
    Also your footer refers to 2014

  6. Developer Turned Manager | Ecode linked to this.
  7. Rands – I hadn’t thought of it this way before. We all love putting out the random fires because it gives us a sense of accomplishment that we might not otherwise have. You have to invest the time in your directs or someone else will (especially in the Seattle Market).