Span of Control

A hot topic that comes up a lot in my coaching and consulting work and an area where I do a lot of work with organizations, is span of control.  How many direct reports should I have?

What is Span of Control?

Span of Control refers to the number of direct reports that you have within an organization. The more subordinates, the larger span of control. Conversely, fewer direct reports means a smaller span of control.

Span of Control in Management and Leadership

In an era of flatter and flatter organizations, the full implications of span of control are often overlooked. Organizations often focus on putting as many people as they can underneath a manager. It’s a much more complex and important decision. Having a wrong span of control can really create deep and significant issues in an organization.

Having a span of control that is too small, will lead to higher costs and extra layers creating an organization that can be disjointed, slow and misaligned. On the other side of the coin, having too large of a span of control can lead to underperformance, lack of quality, lack of good quality leadership time, and turnover.

What is a Manageable Span of Control?

What is the magic number? The reality is, there is no magic number, it depends on circumstances.  When determining how many direct reports a leader should have, there’s four key questions to consider.

  1. How much actual work does a leader have to do? By actual work I mean what kind of deliverables do they handle personally. Are they responsible for a lot of individual work? Or do they spend most of their time on managerial and leadership tasks? Large amounts of individual work would indicate a smaller span of control is needed.
  2. How standard is the work that their employees perform? Is a leader managing a department where everybody does virtually the same work like a manufacturing line or an accounts payable department? Or are the workers doing a variety of different things? Generally speaking, the more standardized the work, the larger the span of control can be.
  3. How independent are the people that the leader manages? Is a leader involved heavily in a day to day, minute to minute kind of stuff, or do they only get involved with exceptions? The rule of thumb here is, the more independent people are, larger the span of control can be for the leader.
  4. What is the learning curve for new people? How long does it take for them to become self-sufficient? And how much work does it take for the leader to help bring them up to speed? The longer the learning curve the smaller the span of control should be but with one caveat. Having a team with high tenure and low turnover will lessen the importance of this question.

The bottom line is that although it is tempting when designing your organization to pile on a lot of direct reports it’s important to take a rational, thoughtful approach to making these decisions.

Getting this right will make a huge difference in effectiveness of your organization, and the success of your business. Take the time to look at the spans of control of your organization today. You will no doubt learn a few things. And you may even find that the true cause behind some of these nagging people problems that just never seem to go away.