Three key considerations can help leaders think through the span of control within their organizational structures.
The question of the best or most manageable span of control is sometimes addressed by a general guideline for organization design from the management board, for example: “we expect every manager to have no less than seven direct reports”. But even then, and also more generally, many managers in fast changing, dynamic organizational contexts have to answer this question for themselves, for example when they build a new team or restructure an existing team as they enter a new leadership job.
A manageable span of control thereby refers to the number of direct reports a manager oversees. This definition of a span of control can be further specified: direct means that the manager, for example, is obligated to lead certain appraisal processes as defined by HR. The direct report has the disciplinary assignment to this manager, and the manager has disciplinary responsibility for the subordinate employee.
If this sounds terribly formalistic and traditional, you’re right! And yet such bureaucratic arrangements are still a lived reality in many corporations. And if you’re not busy exploring daring new forms of self-management with your team (which of course we encourage you to do here), or your organizational context does not allow for that, then the question of your span of management will define how you collaborate with your team and deeply influence how you fill your leadership role.
Define your span of control by considering three key questions
A number of questions can help you think through the span of control for your team:
What group of people should understand themselves as being a team? This has practical implications. For example, who attends the weekly team meetings and thus is part of the team’s ongoing discussions? Are there functions whose perspective you definitely would not want to miss? This might lead you to have a larger span of control in your management function than you would normally consider to be a perfect number. General team size considerations should also be thought-out, beyond the span of control.
What is the level of experience in your team and what are the implications for the reporting relationship? For many leaders, there is a trade-off in this question. Inexperienced team members will potentially benefit from a direct reporting relationship with their boss, through the direct coaching and the opportunity to learn from a senior person. On the other hand, an inexperienced direct report requires more time from a manager. The span of control for a manager will thus be smaller with many inexperienced team members (even though there might be a case to directly coach as many of them as possible), and the span can be larger with an experienced team (where team members can lead and direct more inexperienced employees).
What is the variety of tasks in the potential group of direct reports? A large variety of activities will lead you to calculate a span of control that is smaller, all other things being equal, than a homogeneous group of directs with comparable tasks (for example, regional sales managers).
These three questions are key, but there might also be additional considerations. For example, a company culture that places a high value on supervision and control will have an appetite for small spans of control in business. Leaders who believe in shared leadership, empowerment of their people, and the capacity for self-organization will go for larger and potentially more diverse groups of direct reports.
So should you go for a narrow span of control or a wide span of control? The answer of course is it depends. There is no universal, ideal span of control, but working with the questions above you can define the span of control that is optimal for your situation. In general, leaders and organization designers should understand the importance of span of control for different organizational dynamics. They should reflect on its impact and consider their options before using a simple shorthand or just copying the span of control benchmark data from the organization or merely taking the span of control in their organizational structure as a given.