A partner of a very successful urban planning firm mentioned to me last week that the firm is being challenged by growth. Growing the firm up to 200 people went extremely well. But the latest addition of another dozen or so people has created cracks in the communication environment.
His comment put me in mind of a similar discussion with Glen Mehltretter of PeopleFit and my colleague Herb Koplowitz recently. We were talking about how large a working group can be before things don't work well anymore. It turns out that military organizations have worked on this problem a lot over hundreds of years. And that most military organizations have very similar sizes of work groups, and have had for centuries.
In a military organization, you need to be nimble, be in touch, know the strengths and weaknesses of people and be able to mobilize quickly in order to stay alive. If the units are too large, life becomes dangerous; if the units are too small, the commanders will be stepping on each others toes.
Essentially, you can directly manage as many people as you can keep in touch with and know reasonably well. If there's relatively little coaching involved, and the work is routine and predictable, that number could be very high -- perhaps as many as fifty or sixty people.
If there is a lot of interaction, such as with senior professionals like designers or analysts, where the manager also contributes to output, the biggest work group is probably going to be pretty small, maybe 2 or 3 or 5 people.
Where things get interesting is at the level of the skip-level manager. This person still needs to basically know everyone who is two levels down. Maybe not know them well, but they need to recognize them when they bump into them, approve their merit increases and promotions, and generally have some knowledge of the larger team. Turns out this number is around 250 or 300 people. With more people than that, it's just too big to handle, and one is better off splitting into two units reporting to a manager one layer up.
So I told the urban planner that they might just have stepped over that magic line in their business.
I really wish I had known this some years ago, when the best advice I heard on this subject was "span of control" and "rule of six". Turns out this was all started by somebody named V.A.Graicunas in the 1920's.
The point of all this is that you need to trust your judgment, and the judgment of people you work with. And if you think the call centre is just too big, you're probably right. It usually isn't life and death, as it is in the military, although it often feels that way.
Glenn's company web site is a really great reference source on people management, with a lot of articles on selection and talent pool management. I just took one of their courses, and it was also very worthwhile. Regrettably, he's not paying me to say this.
Addendum March 18:
I think I may have been less than clear. Graicunas (pdf article here) said the optimal maximum is 6 for anyone to manage. Elliot Jaques and others (pdf here and link here) thought Graicunas was wrong. In part, this was a result of observing examples in the military (see links above), as well as in business organizations. When I look through the military structures, however, I see truth in both positions. I see small work teams coordinated by team leaders who all report to managers one level up.
And the work teams are hardly ever more than 8 or 10 people, even in the Roman Legion. One could argue that the work of Legionnaires requires less collaboration -- or perhaps less independent work time -- than the work of programmers, for example.
At one point in my career, I had four regional sales managers reporting to me, each of whom had about 6 sales reps. It would have been a much better environment, and significantly less expensive, with no more than 2 regional managers, each with a dozen reps. Of course, by the time I had figured this out, it was too late, and I was in another organization.