Ask the team!
Seriously: if you need a specific, simple answer to this question that’s more helpful than “it depends…” then this is my answer.
## Why is this an interesting question?
As a manager starting out, I learned: every boss can take care of no more than a dozen people. The organisational structures of the past had clear reporting lines, central authority and decision-making, and each person had a clear boss: leadership above, workers below. In today’s changing, transforming organisation, where we look for resilience and agility, teams may have Product Owners and Scrum Masters and team leads, there might be engineering managers and people managers and coaches. Some say, modern organisations don’t need managers, because everyone will be a leader.
So, one might ask: if everyone is a leader, who will do the work?
I come from the opposite direction: how far can we reduce the need for leaders in organisations? And, while that undoubtedly saves some money on their salaries, will that get us “better” organisations?
Which brings me to the question in the title. How many leaders does a team need?
## Some Examples
A big project consists of more than 30 teams, delivering a big software platform. The teams are using Scrum, an empirical approach to organising teams. Scrum asks for each team to have a “Scrum Master” – a team coach who is responsible for the team’s improvement and effectiveness. Engineers volunteered for this new leadership role. Now, 30 out of about 200 engineers are serving their teams as Scrum Masters. The organisation wants to know how 15% of their engineering budget are well invested – does the effectiveness improve accordingly? And: 30 Scrum Masters have different strengths and interests, 30 teams have different needs, and all of these will evolve over time: how do we orchestrate this system?
Our business is thriving, our company is growing. We are hiring new people every month. Teams and departments increase in size. When do we add leadership positions, split teams, add a new layer to our hierarchy? Are there rules for this?
The organisation is moving towards new ways of working. Employees get more freedom, take more decisions, more authority, and responsibility. They all grow what we used to call “leadership”. We will probably need fewer managers in the future. How many will we still need? And when do we stop needing a specific one?
## What kind of leadership?
Every system has a hierarchy. Bodies are made up of organs, which are build from cells, consisting molecules. Cities contain neighbourhood, that contain streets, that contain houses, that contain floors, that contain rooms. Organisations contain units, that contain teams, that contain people playing roles.
Human organisations have many hierarchies. Technical expertise, domain experience, context knowledge, to just name a few human qualities, are unevenly distributed. In several ways, we can sort any group of people according to different interpretations of “more of” or “less of”. In companies, we have been used to the idea of a singular hierarchy – the organisational chart, the management hierarchy. One dimension to cater for all of these types of differences between people. And we commonly attribute it with higher authority, higher power, higher pay. This one-dimensional hierarchy- creates a pyramid, a very reliable structure that is not very flexible.
In this simple structure, and in predictable contexts where simple, reliable structures are useful, simple selection criteria for organisational design may apply, like
– we have to split an organisational unit when it grows beyond 10 individuals,
– we can generalise the qualities needed to be a leader,
– we can select the right leaders based on those qualities, etc.
I assume your context is more interesting and challenging than such a simple example. As we expect organisations to satisfy more exciting needs of customers, new wants of employees, integrate more diverse individuals, we need new and different kinds of leadership, and new and different kinds of hierarchies. How do we make sense of that?
## Let’s ask the team!
“How many leaders do you need?”
While this question sounds deceptively simple, it is not at all easy to answer. It’s quite likely that your team doesn’t have a good answer. The question might not even make sense, within their frame of reference. Their frame of reference will include their perception of their and your responsibility, and how well they have understood each of those. It will contain the circumstances, conditions and constraints they perceive or believe to be in place, determining what they deem possible, and not possible. And much of this may be unconscious, so they don’t even know that they know these things …
Let’s take a step back from this hypothetical conversation and frame it for our learning. We are applying some general sense-making techniques that help us with this and other difficult questions, allowing us to come up with a better sense of what is possible, reasonable, and helpful.
How many leaders a team needs will depend on
– What kind of team we are looking at,
– What kind of work they want to or are supposed to do,
– What kind of context and situation you are in, and
– What kind of leadership they need to do that work.
As we assumed your team or organisation is interesting, all of these aspects are likely to be complex – there are lots of interdependent parts, some of them changing, not all of them known…
## what if you can’t know?
Let’s start from this premise, or promise: in a complex situation, there won’t be a right answer. Even if you find an answer that works really well today, that can change at any time. The only thing we can be sure of is that we need to stay ready to change, even when things are going well. That’s why so many companies are looking for this thing called “agility” or “resilience” – we want our organisation to figure out how to survive and thrive facing interesting and surprising challenges. Ideally, we want our organisation to be so surprising that it presents challenges for the others. I call this organisational quality “surprisability”.
In such situations (you may call that “when we are in the complex domain”) where we know it’s unlikely to find a “right” or even “best” answer, we need experimentation: a rigorous, methodical approach to change where we focus on learning, instead of on doing things right. Two good principles for experimentation is to let every step of change be small, and “good enough for now, safe enough to try”. (Footnote: this is one of the principles of Sociocracy 3.0, a set of useful practices for running a 21st century organisation. Check it out at sociocracy30.org if you haven’t implemented it yet.)
So let’s approach our question with a frame of experimentation.
## Let’s get learning!
### First step: appreciate the present.
If you have a team that works, consider carefully how much you want to change – you don’t want to break what’s working.
It’s also highly likely that people in the team have invested in the way things are because they created it, got used to it, have spent too much time arguing about it … appreciating the way things are highlights their past contributions and lets them assume responsibility: for how things are right now and for taking things further into the future.
### Second step: understand the system.
Take the questions above – you can start with any of them. Explore
– what kind of team they are and want to be
– what kind of challenges they’ve been facing and what kind of challenge they are facing now
– what kind of situations and contexts the team evolved in and for, and what kind of situations and contexts we are moving into next
– what kind of leadership and support did they get so far, how has that been helpful to them as a team, and what kind of leadership they might need and want next
Don’t try any of these explorations to be comprehensive or perfect. These things change, and it’s more interesting to identify what doesn’t fit than to elaborate details.
For each of these, you may or may notice some tensions:
– tension between different people in how they see all of these things
– tension between past and future
– tension between the different “what’s” – what they want to do and who they want to become might not match
– tension between the team and the conditions/constraints – they might want something they can’t or won’t get
These tensions help you to figure out what’s important. Decide which of them you want to resolve before moving on and which you want to use as drivers for change, or as space for exploration and learning.
In my experience, visualisation helps a lot when facing these questions. Discussions tend to become endless and favour the person who’s the loudest rather than who has something relevant to say. Let everyone involved visualise the explorations above and then present their map to the others, giving each one equal time and attention. Then, decide together what is salient, explore the most interesting tensions. If there’s a disagreement, don’t dive into arguments: take note of the disagreement and use that as one more piece of information about the system.
Pausing here will be a good idea. Let people think about what they have learned and let their minds do background processing – that’s where creative ideas are born.
### Third step: design a few experiments
Now what? Let people come up with things to try. For each idea that makes sense to the group, or a significant party that wants to pioneer it, define a few key elements:
– a hypothesis: what do we assume to be true about the system that we want to test with this experiment?
– indicators: how will we know our hypothesis is true or false?
– a frame: time (effort and duration), money, resources needed, how are we making decisions, risk management … you could call this project management.
– how will we capture and use the learning?
Make this whole process as formal as it needs to be. The guiding principles for experiments are
– good enough for now, and
– safe enough to try.
You want to focus on learning, soon!
### And then, what?
You have a few experiments designed and you’ve had a few insightful conversations on the way. What I hope has emerged on the way – even if you’ve just been reading this and imagined the conversations – is a better sense of what **kind** of leadership is needed. It’s not about a number.
## Looking for leaders and leadership
“A leader in every chair” (Footnote: Christina Baldwin, Calling the Circle) is a principle I really like. As our world becomes more complex, our organisations must become more flexible in order to thrive. This means a few things for leadership:
### Leadership moves from being a position to being an activity
This does not mean there will be no formal leaders. Some people believe that’s a useful aspiration, but I am not convinced yet. There will always be people in organisations who want less responsibility than others, and who appreciate that someone takes responsibility for them, carries a higher amount of risk, and receives a higher pay/status in return.
And, I’ve seen organisations which strive for equity, equal voice, no explicit hierarchy, and I’ve seen that works well. I don’t think those organisations are for everyone. Do they have to be? Do something that works for your business, your purpose, your people, now.
### Leadership becomes part of everyone’s responsibility
As part of this change, it is highly likely, that **some** level of leadership will sneak into everyone’s job. Jobs in which you can always say “ask my boss, I was just following orders” are dying out.
This is a growth opportunity for each of us. Those of us used to taking responsibility for others need to learn to let go, to trust, to open our minds, hearts and wills (link to presencing.org). That sets some of our resources free to do other things! Those of us used to being told what to do, letting others decide for us, waiting for someone to take the lead, get an opportunity to tune up our courage, our confidence, overcome our apathy and step up. This will create movement in places or ways that seemed stuck before. It will create new tensions and frictions, give us new opportunities for learning. All of us will face some level of anxiety facing the unknown.
### Hierarchies will become multi-dimensional
The old model of having one dimension and direction for a career in our organisations – moving up as we “command” more and more people and bigger and bigger chunks of the enterprise – is limiting. Many organisations have realised this and added “technical careers” or “expert careers” to the mental map of their organisations.
I believe we will take this further in the future. The concept of a “boss” (the person you report to, I don’t use this word in any pejorative sense) will dissolve into several, context-dependent leadership roles. Why would the responsibilities of mentoring your career, caring for your well-being, checking the results and outcomes of your work, the approval of your vacation, the supply and financing of resources, just to name a few possible examples, all be combined into one role? Many of these might become obsolete in general, as employees are growing more responsibility. Some will remain, and some new responsibilities might emerge. I hope many organisations will experiment with replacing the one-dimensional hierarchy of the past with a system of multiple, flexible hierarchies instead.
## Where are you headed?
This leaves us with the final question: what’s next? What’s next for you, your team, your organisation?
I’m curious what you’ve learned from this article, and what you are thinking about all these questions. Let me know! Happy to enter a conversation.