span-of-control

What Is The Span of Control? Span of Control In A Nutshell

Span of control is a human resource management term referring to the number of subordinates a supervisor is responsible for managing. Span of control refers to the number of subordinates under the direct control of a manager or leader. For example, a manager responsible for seven subordinates has a span of control of seven. Usually the span of control can go from narrow (more hierarchical) and wide (flatter organization).

Understanding the span of control

Span of control can be used to measure the efficiency of an organization provided it is considered in the context of organizational structure.

Typically, span of control is either narrow or wide, with each having its strengths and weaknesses.

Narrow span

Narrow span is associated with a hierarchical organization structure with many reporting levels.

Management spends more time supervising subordinates and there are more opportunities for growth and development.

However, a narrow span tends to be more expensive as it necessitates the recruitment of comparatively more management staff.

The supervisory nature of hierarchical organizations can also lead to micromanagement and less subordinate empowerment if it is misused. 

Wide-span

A wide span is associated with a flat organizational structure with fewer reporting levels.

flat-organizational-structure
In a flat organizational structure, there is little to no middle management between employees and executives. Therefore it reduces the space between employees and executives to enable an effective communication flow within the organization, thus being faster and leaner.

Management exists to answer questions, solve problems, and encourage employee empowerment through increased responsibility and decision-making power.

Despite the benefits of a wide span, the structure can result in managers becoming overwhelmed by subordinates requiring high levels of direction, support, and supervision.

Conversely, some subordinates who prefer to receive direct instruction may experience decreased morale and job satisfaction.

Hybrid

A hybrid span combines wide and narrow depending on the functions associated with a project; this gets closer to a matrix organizational structure.

matrix-organizational-structure

What is the optimal span of control?

The optimal span of control will of course vary from one organization to the next. Management expert George P. Hattrup suggested four to five reporting levels were sufficient for all but the largest organizations.

In terms of span of control, experts suggest around 15 to 20 subordinates per manager is ideal for most modern companies. 

Businesses that want a more nuanced approach to determining their span of control should consider the following points:

  • Culture – more relaxed and inclusive company cultures tend to favor flatter organizational structures, while more rigid and autocratic cultures tend to favor hierarchies. Businesses need to consider their current or desired culture when determining a suitable span of control.
  • Task complexity – routine, low complexity jobs require less supervision than more complex jobs that are loosely defined and require frequent expert input. As a result, a narrow span with a higher proportion of managers is more conducive to complex task completion.
  • Management competence – more experienced managers have a wider span of control than less experienced managers, particularly if supervising menial, low complexity tasks. Here, it is also useful to consider how qualified the manager is to perform technical, non-managerial aspects of their position.
  • Employee competence – by the same token, more experienced employees require a wider span of control with less training, direction, and delegation. Employees with less experience will require a higher proportion of management staff.

Key takeaways:

  • The span of control is a human resource management term referring to the number of subordinates a supervisor is responsible for managing. 
  • The span of control may be categorized in one of two ways. Wide span of control is associated with a flat organizational structure with fewer reporting levels and higher subordinate autonomy. Conversely, narrow span of control is associated with a hierarchical organizational structure with more reporting levels and decreased subordinate autonomy.
  • The span of control will vary from one company to the next, but there are some important points every organization should consider before choosing an approach. These include company culture, management competence, employee competence, and task complexity.

The span of control refers to the number of subordinates a supervisor is responsible for managing and the dynamics emerging from it. There are two main types of the span of control: narrow (associated with a hierarchical organizational structure) and broad (associated with a flat organizational structure). A third type is a hybrid approach between wide and narrow, closer to a matrix organizational structure determined according to functions.

Understanding the dynamics behind the span of control is critical to assess whether an organization is well run. Indeed, when a span of control gets too narrow, the organization might be in a micromanaging mode, where managers are not enabling enough decision-making for their teams. In the opposite scenario, of a wide span, an organization is flatter. This works exceptionally well for smaller organizations and startups that, given the smaller scale, can and must move much quicker.

In the case of a company like Airbnb, you have a flat organizational structure with product teams organized around critical products. In an organization like Apple today, at its scale, it works more as a hierarchical organization, with some product-based grouping between some key divisions.

Additional Related Concepts

Agile Leadership

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Agile leadership is the embodiment of agile manifesto principles by a manager or management team. Agile leadership impacts two important levels of a business. The structural level defines the roles, responsibilities, and key performance indicators. The behavioral level describes the actions leaders exhibit to others based on agile principles. 

Adaptive Leadership

adaptive-leadership
Adaptive leadership is a model used by leaders to help individuals adapt to complex or rapidly changing environments. Adaptive leadership is defined by three core components (precious or expendable, experimentation and smart risks, disciplined assessment). Growth occurs when an organization discards ineffective ways of operating. Then, active leaders implement new initiatives and monitor their impact.

Delegative Leadership

delegative-leadership
Developed by business consultants Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey in the 1960s, delegative leadership is a leadership style where authority figures empower subordinates to exercise autonomy. For this reason, it is also called laissez-faire leadership. In some cases, this type of leadership can lead to increases in work quality and decision-making. In a few other cases, this type of leadership needs to be balanced out to prevent a lack of direction and cohesiveness of the team.

Distributed Leadership

distributed-leadership
Distributed leadership is based on the premise that leadership responsibilities and accountability are shared by those with the relevant skills or expertise so that the shared responsibility and accountability of multiple individuals within a workplace, bulds up as a fluid and emergent property (not controlled or held by one individual). Distributed leadership is based on eight hallmarks, or principles: shared responsibility, shared power, synergy, leadership capacity, organizational learning, equitable and ethical climate, democratic and investigative culture, and macro-community engagement.

Micromanagement

micromanagement
Micromanagement is about tightly controlling or observing employees’ work. Although in some cases, this management style might be understood, especially for small-scale projects, generally speaking, micromanagement has a negative connotation mainly because it shows a lack of trust and freedom in the workplace, which leads to adverse outcomes.

RASCI Matrix

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A RASCI matrix is used to assign and then display the various roles and responsibilities in a project, service, or process. It is sometimes called a RASCI Responsibility Matrix. The RASCI matrix is essentially a project management tool that provides important clarification for organizations involved in complex projects.

Organizational Structure

organizational-structure
An organizational structure allows companies to shape their business model according to several criteria (like products, segments, geography and so on) that would enable information to flow through the organizational layers for better decision-making, cultural development, and goals alignment across employees, managers, and executives. 

Tactical Management

tactical-management
Tactical management involves choosing an appropriate course of action to achieve a strategic plan or objective. Therefore, tactical management comprises the set of daily operations that support long strategy delivery. It may involve risk management, regular meetings, conflict resolution, and problem-solving.

High-Performance Management

high-performance-management
High-performance management involves the implementation of HR practices that are internally consistent and aligned with organizational strategy. Importantly, high-performance management is a continual process where several different but integrated activities create a performance management cycle. It is not a process that should be performed once a year and then hidden in a filing cabinet.

Scientific Management

scientific-management
Scientific Management Theory was created by Frederick Winslow Taylor in 1911 as a means of encouraging industrial companies to switch to mass production. With a background in mechanical engineering, he applied engineering principles to workplace productivity on the factory floor. Scientific Management Theory seeks to find the most efficient way of performing a job in the workplace.

Change Management

change-management

TQM Framework

total-quality-management
The Total Quality Management (TQM) framework is a technique based on the premise that employees continuously work on their ability to provide value to customers. Importantly, the word “total” means that all employees are involved in the process – regardless of whether they work in development, production, or fulfillment.

Agile Project Management

Agile Management
Agile Project Management (AgilePM) seeks to bring order to chaotic corporate environments using several tools, techniques, and elements of the project lifecycle. Fundamentally, agile project management aims to deliver maximum value according to specific business priorities in the time and budget allocated. AgilePM is particularly useful in situations where the drive to deliver is greater than the perceived risk.

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