I met someone at the Software Development conference this week who told me he had too many people to meet with them all–even on a biweekly basis. I asked him how many people he managed. “30.” That’s not a typo; that’s the number between 29 and 31. I asked why he had so many people reporting directly to him. “My manager believes in flat organizations.” And how many people report to his manager? “4.” Sure, the manager can believe in flat organization; he’s got a reasonable number of direct reports.
I don’t have a recipe for the number of people you can manage. New, unseasoned managers can manage 3 or 4 people. More seasoned managers can easily manage 6 or 7 people. If you’re also the project manager–assigning work, making sure people make progress on the work, coordinating the work of multiple people, it’s possible to manage somewhere around 9-12 people. That’s hard, but possible. Of course, all you can do is manage; there’s no room for any kind of technical contribution once you’re past three people.
If you’re the functional manager and you assign people to projects with talented project managers, maybe you can manage 15-16 people. I’ve managed up to 15 people that way.
It’s not possible for one person to directly manage 30 people and still perform the management role for each person. I’m sure that there are informal technical leads in that group. But since those roles are informal, the communication issues must be extraordinary. I bet there are lots of people who aren’t getting the work done when they need to get it done, because the communication through one group of 30 people is too complex.
If you have lots of people, formally create sub-project managers or technical leads. Define their roles, including who will provide frequent feedback and coaching. And make sure your manager understands the consequences of choosing a flat organization: that you will be the bottleneck, that work will take longer, and that the most important management work will not get done–personal career development, feedback, and coaching. If you don’t create the leads or sub-project managers, there’s a good bet a bunch of project work won’t be done either, just because the coordination of effort among 30 people is a non-trivial effort.
Managers perform a valuable role in the organization, creating an environment in which people can deliver results. Organizations with a manager for every three people probably has too many managers. But an organization that averages over 12 people per manager probably has too few managers. When considering how many managers you need, consider how much feedback, coaching, hiring, and coordinating the manager needs to accomplish. Those considerations will help you decide how flat the organization needs to be.