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?

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