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2018-12-31 18:38 -0800
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Advocacy, inquiry, and very large teams

From Overcoming The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni:

How many people should be on a team?

This is the $64,000 question, for sure. And while there is no way to answer it definitively for every organization, I believe the range is from three to twelve.

Most organizations I work with err on the side of including too many people on a team, in many cases because they don’t want to exclude anyone. It’s as though they’re mistakenly viewing team membership as a reward or a benefit rather than as a strategic decision about how to best run the organization. And while I salute the desire to be inclusive, there are some big problems with having too many people on a team:

  • On a purely practical and tactical note, it’s tough to coordinate meetings and other team activities when there are fifteen schedules to consider.
  • More important, it’s difficult for team members to get to know one another, develop bonds of trust with one another, when there are too many people in the room. Generally speaking, a kid who grows up in a family of ten children is probably not going to have as deep and meaningful relationship with most siblings as a kid born to a family of four. Generally speaking, that is.
  • But perhaps most important of all, having too many people on a team makes team dynamics during meetings and other decision-making events almost impossible. That’s because a good team has to engage in two types of communication in order to optimize decision making, but only one of these is practical in a large group.

According to Harvard’s Chris Argyris, those two types of communication are advocacy and inquiry. Basically, advocacy is the statement of ideas and opinions; inquiry is the asking of questions for clarity and understanding. When a group gets too large, people realize they are not going to get the floor back any time soon, so they resort almost exclusively to advocacy. It becomes like Congress (which is not designed to be a team) or the United Nations (ditto).

One member says, “I think we should pursue proposal A,” provoking another member to say, “Well, I think we should pursue proposal B.” Someone else lobbies for C, yet another person wants A with a slight modification, and before you know it, everyone is trying to get their opinion heard.

Inquiry, on the other hand, would entail one of the members saying, “Wait a minute. I’d like to hear you explain why you support proposal A, because I want to understand your rationale. After all, if it makes sense, I could go along with it.” Okay, that might be just a little too idealistic, but you get the point.