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The ideal span of control – How to see it and intervene

Almost no organizational question is asked more than ‘what is the ideal span of control?’ There are those who believe you should have no more than eight layers and no fewer than eight direct reports. Our view is it depends on a number of factors. This article looks at some of the most commonly asked questions and how you can improve your span of control without losing valuable skills and capabilities.

Published by Giles Slinger

[This article was updated on October 10, 2019]

Everyone knows there is no such thing as the ideal span of control. It differs from organisation to organisation, from position to position. But by increasing the span of control, you can reduce the number of managers and layers in the organization. This gives, all things being equal, significant cost savings and improves communication from the top.

That said, span of control should not be used as a blunt instrument for organizational change. There is a famous example of a consulting firm advocating a blanket ‘8 by 8’ approach – never more than eight levels and never fewer than eight in the span of control.

Such numerical rules should only be used for preliminary screening, as they overlook the practicalities of varying work complexity in different areas of the organization. For example, in call centres, the typical span of control is 12-15 people, while in executive teams Neilson and Wulf (2012) reports a median of eight people in the CEO’s span of control.

Bringing span of control to life

Span of control and its effects is not something that’s easily understood through numbers on the page. So, how can you bring it to life to see what’s really going on? How do you make it visual and easy to think about?

The questions we’ve found people most often want the answers are:

  • How can I calculate the span of control?
  • What is the average span of control for my whole organisation?
  • What is the average span of control at each level?
  • What is the average span of control for each of the top 10 roles?
  • If we set a minimum span of control, how many people would be affected? How much money would we save?

The following responses show how these questions can be answered using data visualizations, giving managers and the HR team instant insight into their organization (all data is fictional).

How can I calculate the span of control?

Span of control is the number of people reporting to each manager. We calculate this number according to the number of heads managed, whether full-time or part-time. So, someone managing 12 part-time workers still has a span of control of 12, and not the equivalent of managing six full-time employees.

What is the average span of control for my whole organization?

This is useful as a starting point, but it’s only a stepping stone to comparisons with other organizations, in the same industry for example, or for making departmental comparisons internally.

In that vein, the next question is often:

What is the average span of control per department?

Now, this starts to get interesting, but what impact might these different spans of control have? As a first test, we’ve colour in the bar chart to show a distribution of performance by teams. This gives an immediate sense of where there may be performance issues to address.

What is the average span of control at each level?

The chart below shows the organization represented has its peak span of control at level 5. What might be the reason for this? Is the work relatively simple and easily supervised? And why does the span of control drop off after this level?

To understand this, lets dive deeper – for example, role by role:

What is the average span of control for each of the top 10 roles?

Now we begin to get under the skin of the work being done across departments and the nature of that work. What it is about the work that requires a lower span for warehouse manager and programme managers, for example, compared to sales managers and project managers? In fact, how do we distinguish between ‘programme’ managers and ‘project’ managers?

It’s then worth looking at the picture on a case by case basis. Who should we speak to?

If we were to set a minimum span of control, how many people would be affected? How much money would we save?

Evaluating span of control is a good health check for all organizations. By visualizing spans and layers, organizations can quickly see where there might be opportunities for improvement or where the problems lie.

A framework for thinking through an ideal span of control

Like most problems, it’s useful to break span of control down into its constituent parts when considering what the optimum number is in each case. There are three factors to consider: the nature of subordinates, the nature of managers, and the overall context of the organization. Each of these have various drivers that should help managers and HR decide.

Nature of the subordinates

  • Capability of workers. The more capable the worker, the less supervision they’ll need
  • Degree of repeatability of task. It’s easier to manage more people performing similar tasks, because management can be process driven.
  • Motivation, judgement, and maturity. Less supervision is needed if workers are self-starters and know when to escalate. Allowing people to work autonomously also brings trust.

Nature of the managers

  • Capability of managers. The more capable and experienced managers are, the more likely they’ll be able to handle a larger span of control.
  • Trust and relationships. The more workers trust their managers and the stronger the relationship between managers and workers, the less supervision will be needed.

Context of the organization

  • Geographical dispersion. The more dispersed an organization is, the harder it is to supervise.
  • Training and development. Does the manager need to provide detailed training and guidance (more junior workers) and or direction only (more senior workers)? 
  • Culture. The more democratic the culture, the lower the span of control can be.
  • Administrative management. How much administration is created by development plans, policy briefings, and managing objectives?
  • Amount of change. The greater the level of changes, the lower the span of control.

It’s possible to group together subordinates and managers based on these drivers, from which it would be a relatively easy step to work out which areas should have a higher or lower span of control. A gap analysis could then be carried out and deeper, more meaningful questions asked.

Equally, if it’s a priority to reduce cost by delayering and increasing the average span of control, it might be better to focus more on the underlying drivers to improve the span of control ratio. Additionally, doing something to improve the relevant drivers in each situation, such as reduce the number of admin tasks, or improve managers’ knowledge, may make it easier to achieve those sought-after cost savings.

Read more about cost reduction

Our article ‘How to preserve human capital value with sustainable cost control’ looks at how effective organizational planning can produce a balanced workforce and preserve valuable skills and capabilities.