Skip to content

The ideal Span of Control – How to see it and intervene

Published by OrgVue

Everyone knows there is no such thing as the ideal span of control. It differs from organisation to organisation, from position to position. For example:

Span of control should not be used as a blunt instrument on an organisation There is a famous example of a consulting firm marketing a blanket 8 x 8 approach: never more than 8 levels; never fewer than 8 in the span of control. In another case we have heard of 6 x 6. These numerical rules can only be used as a first screen in the diagnosis, as they neglect the realities of different work complexity in specific areas of the organisation; in call centres, typical spans will be 12-15 people while in executive teams, Neilson and Wulf (2012) report a median of 8 people in the CEO’s span of control.

Span of Control and its consequences are not something that is easily understood through seeing numbers on the page. How then can you bring spans of control to life? How do you make them visual and easy for people to think about?

The questions people often want to answer are:

The images below show how these questions can be answered, giving managers and HR teams instant insight into their organisation. (All data is from a fictionalised company).

How can I calculate the span of control?

We calculate the span of control for managers by the number of heads managed, as this is the human management challenge. So a manager of 12 part time staff has a span of control of 12, even if they are managing only 6 FTE.

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

Picture1

This is useful to understand as a starting point, but it is only a stepping stone to seeing useful comparatives – either with other organisations or by making internal comparisons. So the next question is often:

What is the average span of control per department?

Picture2Now this starts to get interesting – but what impact might these different spans of control have? As a first experiment, we colour in the bar chart to show a distribution of performance by teams. This gives an immediate visual sense of where there may be performance issues worth addressing.

 What is the average span of control at each level?

Picture3

This organisation appears to have a peak span of control at depth 5. Is there a reason for this? Is the work relatively simple, and easily controlled at this level? Why do spans of control drop off after the fifth 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?

Picture4

This begins to allow a diagnose of the true situation: working with the organisation, can we understand what it is about the roles that requires a lower span per Warehouse Manager and Programme Manager, for example, than for Sales Managers and Project Managers?

It is then worth a focus on a case by case basis. Who should we speak to?

Who are the outliers with low span of control?  Where are our managers dangerously overstretched?

Managers grouped by span of control, sorted by Performance Ranking 2 Managers grouped by span of control, sorted by Performance Ranking 1

The classic approach to de-layering looks not only at the spans of control, but also at the maximum depth of the organisation. BCG argues, for example, that there are frequently too many layers between the CEO and the front line. So let’s check – can we show quickly and intuitively how many layers there are in the organisation?

What is the maximum depth of each department?

Picture7

The icicle chart represents the entire organisation on a page, and shows the layers visually. Obviously a bar chart of departments’ depth would also be potentially useful. Another visualisation shows example frontline employees and their depth in each department. In this case the maximum depth is in IT programme delivery and project delivery:

Max employee depth by Dept

Finally, it’s usually worth asking about benefits. Eliminating even only the most extreme examples of low spans of control would be worth something. But how much?

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

Potential scenario

The notion of Span of Control is worth exploring and is a good healthcheck for all organisations from time to time. There is no magic number on the ‘ideal’ span of control. However, investigating and visualising span of control gives organisations an instant view of depths, spans, outliers, opportunities and potential areas for improvement.