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How Many Managers Does It Take to Change an Organization?

A trendy thing to say is that having fewer managers is "better" and organizations should be "as flat as possible." True. We all know that. We read it all the time. But the first question people then come up with is, "How many managers should there be?" And the documented answers I could find range from one for every team [Testa 2009:52] to one for every 100 employees [Larman 2009:241].

But I think the question is a wrong one. The ratio of managers to subordinates in an organization is not some constant you can define. Instead, this ratio is the outcome of the measures that managers take when growing the structure of their organization. How many teams are cross-functional and how many are functional? Where is the first design principle applied and in which cases the second? And how free are employees in choosing the teams they want to work for and work with? It is managers who make these decisions. And it is managers who bear the consequences.

  • It is a fantasy—a tempting and pervasive one, but a fantasy nonetheless—that it is possible to have great teams without the bother of creating enabling team structures. We hope that markets will make hierarchies unnecessary. That we can have networks rather than organizations. That boundaryless social systems can accomplish work efficiently and effectively. And, when some kind of structure actually is needed, that self-organizing processes of the kind celebrated by complexity theory will create them automatically.10

The first concern for managers is growing the best team structures. It makes no sense to discuss the best ratio of managers to subordinates in an organization. But it does make sense to discuss the best rationale for organizational design. The ratio will simply follow the rationale.

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