Agile Team Size and the Ringelmann Effect

Teams influence individual performance in many ways.

In a previous post, we talked about the Köhler effect – the impact of having team members with lesser skills working with stronger teammates to improve performance. In this case, being a part of a team is providing a positive influence.

Another potential dynamic may be affecting your team performance but with negative influence – when the overall size of the team grows too large the Ringelmann effect may set in.

The Ringelmann effect occurs when individual performance begins to diminish as the size of the team increases. This phenomena can also be known as “social loafing.”

While one would think this would occur because of the additional coordination necessary for a larger group, it is believed to originate because one or more members of the team are lacking in motivation. We have all seen the effects of the Ringelmann effect from time to time. While not usually expressed orally, a team member is thinking, “Someone else will work a little harder so I don’t need to” or “No one will notice if I don’t put in 100% today.”

Teams, and especially Agile teams, cannot tolerate this type of behavior for very long so keeping our teams small and self-accountable is important.

Here are a couple of tips for how you can overcome the Ringlemann effect and keep your teams fluid and lean:
Establish your ideal team size. Many organizations use the “two pizza” rule for building teams. A team should never need more than two pizzas to feed them. So somewhere between 5 to 9 people feels about right, depending on team appetite of course. The Scrum Guide states a team should be no larger than 9 people so if you start to hit double-digits, you are probably too big.

Intentionally monitor team size. If you have multiple teams, use a dashboard to keep track of how your team size is changing. Here is an example I have used. Team size will often creep up over time unless you are intentional about it.

Keep them motivated. Regardless of team size but especially with larger teams, work with the product owner to make sure the team has a compelling vision to work towards. Obviously, any team without a vision will have issues but a large team without a vision will slowly begin to rot.

Learn what an effective team “sounds” like. A well-functioning team has an energy about it. It’s a natural buzz of energy, engagement, and potential. A little like the hum of electrical wires. You can’t always see it but you know the power is there. If the team begins to grow quieter than usual, they may be under the influence of the Ringelmann effect or perhaps another dysfunction of a team.


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