6 July 2008

Span of Control

Span of control (made famous by Peter Drucker) is a concept that looks at the number of people a manager has directly reporting to them.

This view of organisational structure has two dimensions, which each have strengths and weaknesses.

A broad span (figure 1) means that there is direct communications and interactions between the manager and their many reports (i.e. people who report to them.)

The benefits of this are that everyone deals with the same manager, and as a result everyone is more likely to be aligned with the manager’s vision of what should be done.  The disadvantages are the cost to the manager in terms of time to deal with each staff member.

A tall span (figure 2) means that there are more layers of management between the frontline and the top level management, and as a result there is the opportunity for the vision and communications from the top to be muddied by misinterpretation. The benefits of this model are that the managers all have more time to spend on each person and the work at hand.

Naturally a balance between vertical and horizontal spans has to be found for each organisation, and of course the balance changes within organisations, depending on a number of things such as the complexity of the work, the worker’s self sufficiency and the culture of the organisation.

A couple of examples to illustrate this point;

  1. Production line workers typically work in a large worker to manager ratio (say 25:1) as the work is low in complexity and the worker is basically self sufficient.

  2. Call centre workers also have a reasonably large number of workers to managers, but this varies depending on the complexity of the role. Simple mass market enquiries (e.g. paying a phone bill) might have staff to manager ratios of 25 or more to 1, whereas complex business to business transactions may be supported by smaller teams with say 10:1 staff to manager ratios.

  3. And a bunch of high end business consultants might work in a team of 4 per manager because their work is highly complex.

So, what does this mean for project teams?

There are multiple lessons to be drawn from this concept. And they can be categorised into

  • Organising project teams, 

  • Identifying and managing stakeholders and 

  • Designing future modes of operations for clients. 

And there is potentially some lessons that can be learned for managing requirements.

More to come, but first; Your thoughts on this topic?


  1. Craig,

    This topic is pretty timely for me right now. The place I work is currently reorganizing and trying to find some efficiencies in managing portfolios, and by extension, projects.

    For myself, I think that the organizational style analogy holds true for projects. Depending on the size and complexity of the project, you may have multiple project managers throughout the structure. If the project is small enough or simple enough, then a single manager can handle it.

    This is definitely a decision point that requires some attention when setting up project teams.


  2. Anonymous1:17 pm

    Hi Craig,

    This is an interesting post, and one we grappled with all the time when I was in the Army. We called it span of command, and the rule of thumb was seven to ten indivuals or sub-units to a commander.

    This post http://www.thebusinessplan.info/Organization/Span_of_Control.htm provides a pretty good explanation of how span of control might work in a business context.

    I've also looked at this issue from a program and portfolio point of view. The organisation where I am researching my PhD has just over 200 projects. To manage this they divide their portfolio into four programs - that is 50 or so projects to a program manager. Each program manager has four or five directorates, who each oversee about 10 projects.

    That said I think this is a simplistic approach. Have a look at this post http://www.durantlaw.info/Dollars+or+Links and you will quickly realise there is more to it.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    Best Regards, Graham

  3. Janet

    It's imely for mme also. I am trying to manage a team with too many people reporting directly to me. I haven't had time to scratch.

    What to do? Time to reorganise.

    And Graham

    THanls for your tips. Sounds like a tough environment you are investigating. How do their projects go? Off target, late and over budget? Dissapointed customers at the release date?

    Thanks for the links. Shall be reading them tonight!

  4. Anonymous9:46 am

    Hi Craig,

    They almost invariably are over budget and over time. Sometimes they are years late and millions of dollars over budget. That said the end-users are mostly happy, when they get the product.

    Regards, Graham

  5. Can anyone tell me the full form of SPAN .....pls


  6. jatinkumar

    In this context SPAN is not an acronym. It simply means "breadth"

    It's a different dimension to the normal vertical hierarchies that are discussed in organisational design discussions.

  7. donna2:09 am

    Thanks, nice to find something in plain english!!!