Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Team size isn’t a measure of success

You grew your team from 6 to 12 people this year – congratulations, right?

Not so fast.

Team growth feels like success – the line’s going up, right? – but “headcount” by itself isn’t a measure of anything (other than cost). If you double your team size but only increase your output by 10%, is that really success?

Most managers have internalized the idea that team growth, in and of itself, is a unalloyed good, and a sign of success. This is wrong, but it’s understandable.

Impact and efficacy are the true measures of success

The measure of success for a team – and thus its manager – is impact: on the bottom line, on engineering output, on sales, etc. Team size might be correlated with impact – but also it might not! We’ve probably all experienced teams that double in size and somehow end up less productive. And even where team size is correlated with success, the cause and effect are the other way around: successful teams grow; growing doesn’t make teams more successful.

And really, the measure of success for a team probably should be something like “impact per headcount”. If you can increase impact without increasing headcount (and without burning people out!) you’re creating efficiency: doing more with less. That should be every manager’s real goal.

Measuring growth instead is an understandable mistake

Unfortunately, using growth as a success metric is a common mistake – but an understandable one:

  • Most managers have really poor – or nonexistent – measure of impact. Sometimes they have team-wide goals but they tend to be vague and really binary: “ship feature X”, “no P0 vulnerabilities”, etc. It’s rare for managers to have measures of success that are SMART enough to provide real guidance.
  • Even when managers have clear measures of impact, these measures are often poorly correlated to how managers performance is perceived by the leaders above them. That is, managers often get measured on “vibes” more than anything. I’ve seen plenty of managers who are hitting all their supposed goals still get managed out; I’ve seen plenty of managers who routinely miss their targets still get promoted. The measures are not the measures.
  • Team size, on the hand, is super-tangible and easy to see, and it looks like success. We’re conditioned to believe the growth is good; the team is growing; thus: the team is good. Managers get rewarded for growing their teams, so they keep doing it.
  • Directors and VPs often use headcount as a reward: teams that perform better get more headcount. This is terrifically silly, but super common.
  • Likewise, there’s often silly budget shenanigans around headcount. It’s not uncommon to have a sort of “use it or lose it” policy around hiring budget: if you don’t hire someone this fiscal year, you can’t ‘save’ that headcount for next year when you might actually need it.
  • Team size is also generally aligned with most managers’ individual career goals. If you’re looking to move from manger to director to executive , you’ll almost certainly be asked in an interview about the largest team you’ve managed to date. If you can’t say you’ve managed a big enough team (for whatever value of “big enough” the person interviewing you has arbitrarily decided upon), you won’t get offered that higher-up job. (This is silly: being a line manager for 15 ICs doesn’t prepare you for managing managers any more than managing 5 ICs does, but that’s another article.)

If you’re a manager stuck in one of these situations: you have my condolences. If you need to play the headcount game to protect your job or career, I totally understand – “put your own mask on first”. I do hope this article gives you some impetus to push back against hiring for hiring’s sake1, if you can.

And if you’re in enough of a position of leadership to control how your company or organization thinks about team size: please, start measuring and rewarding impact over growth!

  1. And, gosh, I haven’t even mentioned the effect of hiring someone into a role that’s not really needed on that person. It’s really terrible being hired just because it makes the hiring manager look successful and discovering you don’t really have important – or any! – work to do. So do it for your potentially-bored and -unsatisfied directs, if nothing else. ↩︎