December 07, 2015

Teams and Composition

“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” - Phil Jackson

Form Follows Function

The phrase “form follows function” (attributed to architect Louis Sullivan) is a guiding principle for every design and architecture student and refers to the importance of creating things to fit the purpose for which they are intended. In an architectural context, one does not (or at least should not) construct a building without first deciding what that building will be used for. In the context of teams ‘function’ relates to the goals or purpose of the team and ‘form’ to the number of members and the skills and abilities of those members. One has to know what the function, purpose or goals of the team are and build its composition accordingly.

Composition Awareness

Team composition should never be ignored and should regularly be reviewed. On the one hand, a team may have the necessary people, skills and attributes for successful completion of a project and not realise it. On the other hand, it may not have the necessary resources at all and not realise that either!

Changing Goals

As the skills and attributes required are dependent on the goals of the team, any change to these goals make it necessary to reconsider the team composition. Some members may need to leave the team (or up-skill) and new members may be required.

Membership Creep

Surprisingly, it is not unusual for team members to be in disagreement on who comprises their team. Recent research of over one hundred senior executive teams found that fewer than 10% agreed on who was actually on their team. This phenomenon is particularly common in virtual teams (a growing feature of many organisations) where “membership creep” can literally push the team to the point of paralysis.


The degree of heterogeneity or homogeneity can have impact on the performance of the team. On the one hand, diversity can be a valuable source of innovation and energy but also tends to lead to more conflict. On the other hand, team members with similar characteristics will tend to be more cohesive, but together may lack a complement of attributes required for maximising performance. Research at the London Business School identified a gender balance of 50/50 led to the most innovative teams.

Leadership style

The composition of the team has implications for how the team is led and what constitutes the most appropriate style of leadership.

Optimal Team Size

Team size is also an important consideration. Empirical evidence suggests that optimal team size is between five and ten members. According to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, “if you can’t feed a team with two pizzas, it’s too large!”

A common mistake is to consider a department as a team when it is in fact made up multiple teams each with its own purpose, leadership and unique set of challenges.

As a team increases in size, focus wanes and the management of relationships becomes more difficult as inter-dependencies between members grow exponentially.


Composition Questions

  1. Am I leading one team or am I leading multiple teams (as if they were one team)?
  2. Who is actually on this team?
  3. Does this team have the skills to achieve its goals?
  4. Are the right people on this team?
  5. Do I need to get rid of some members and/or find new members
  6. Is the team heterogeneous or homogeneous and am I leading it appropriately?


An inappropriately configured team cannot effectively deliver what is required of it. A team leader therefore needs to maintain awareness of the issues surrounding team composition in order to achieve an effective balance and regularly question:

  • the relevance of current skill sets in achieving goals,
  • the importance of current staff attributes in creating synergies and adding value and
  • the manageability of the current team in relation to its size.

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