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Themes and theories for working in virtual project teams
Themes and theories for working in virtual project teams

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2.3 Team size

Many people agree that six is a critical level for the number of people in a group in all sorts of situations. In a team with less than six members it can be difficult for individual members to express themselves. The feeling of closeness in a small team, whether face-to-face or virtual, can sometimes make it difficult for individuals to show their feelings, particularly about the team and team issues. As the size of the team increases, the culture of the group can change. Individuals can feel less constrained by the norms within the group and be more prepared to express themselves. The leadership and other roles tend to become more established as activities associated with organising and managing the team increases because of the size of the team. When the team has around 12 to 25 members, the likelihood of face-to-face or virtual interaction between all team members decreases and simultaneously subgroups tend to emerge.

When a team contains more than 25 members, effective interaction between everyone is almost impossible. Rooms aren’t large enough to hold everyone, or technology is unable to facilitate the scale of simultaneous interaction required. In a virtual team of this size, there are likely to be so many email and conference messages sent that some may get overlooked or ignored. A large group may split into subgroups and this can be managed by allocating subtasks to the subgroups so that the benefits of working in a smaller group or team can be achieved.

Jaques and Salmon (2006) summed up the changing dynamics as the size of teams grows, explaining that in a small group it is easy to think but difficult to feel, and in a large group the opposite is likely to be the case. In a smaller group the communication is less complex and, whether physical or virtual, there is a greater feeling of proximity to others and hence a greater cohesion within the group. In a larger group individuals can feel less constrained by the norm. In a large group there can be a tendency for communication to become more formal, but individuals may be more aware of their feelings, so views may become polarised and conflict is more likely, which leads to increasing tension. Figure 3 illustrates some of the characteristics of teams that change as the number of members grows.

Changing characteristics of teams with increasing membership
(based on Jaques and Salmon, 2006, p. 11)
Figure 3 Changing characteristics of teams with increasing membership

Inevitably, people leave a team or join it. As Figure 3 illustrates, as the size of the team changes, so do a number of other factors, including the number of people that everyone in the team can interact with. Adding an extra person to a team increases the number of communication paths, each of which has to be managed. For example, there is one communication path between two people, three communication paths between three people, six between four people, ten between five people, and so on, as illustrated in Figure 4. As there are more people to interact with, so there are more people to have their say in meetings and online discussion forums.

The number of communication paths between two, three and four people
Figure 4 The number of communication paths between two, three and four people

The number of communication paths between pairs of participants is related to the total number of participants, n, according to the following formula:

  • Number of paths = (n ( n –1)) / 2

A typical, simple message might contain information sent by one person to a second person and then, along the same pathway but in the opposite direction, a reply from the second person to the first. This shows that each path has two directions. Hohman (1997) explains that in practice communication may become further complicated by information being passed via other people. For example, if person A sends a message to person B, and person B sends the message on to person C, then the route from A to C is via B, which is a different route from the direct A to C channel.

SAQ 3

  • a.How many distinct communication pathways are there between individuals in a team of 6, if the individual paths but not the direction, are considered?
  • b.Why might email not be a good discussion medium for a team of size 10? What alternatives might there be?

Answer

  • a.Fifteen communication pathways (there are 10 pathways in a group of 5; adding an extra person means that the original 5 each have an extra person to communicate with, adding a further 5 pathways). Or, using the above formula, the number is given by 6 x (6 – 1)/2 = 6 x 5/2 = 15.
  • b.Applying the above formula gives (10 (10 – 1)) / 2 = 10 x 9 / 2 = 45 links. This means that there could be up to 45 separate communication paths (conversations) between different pairs of members of the team all taking place simultaneously and the potential for misunderstandings can be large. A mailing list, or a shared discussion space such as a forum, could be used to help reduce the number of communication paths that are actually used.

The preceding discussion may give you the impression that in terms of team size, small is preferable. However, there are benefits to working in a large team; the larger the group, the greater is the pool of talent and experience that is available to the team for solving problems or sharing effort.