The concept called “span of control,” refers to how many people report directly to you in your organization? Usually, this question is relevant for a Go-Go company where, since the start-up stage, everyone in the company reported to the CEO. He or she continues to hold on to this responsibility, even as the company is expanding and growing and changing. And then, all at once, the span of control gets out of control. (I was once told by Bob Haldeman, chief of staff for President Nixon, that by law, 120 people report directly to the president of the United States. No wonder the White House is out of control...)
There are some textbooks that say the span of control should not be more than seven direct reports. My take on the subject: The span depends on the qualifications and motivations of the people who report to you. If they're very qualified and very motivated, you can have a wider span of control. Otherwise, you may find yourself trying to over control racehorses. If they're on the other hand overly motivated and overeager, or if they are underqualified and unmotivated, it is better to keep the span of control tight. You will lose control of wild horses or not have the time and attention necessary to push old mules.
How many people should report to any one person is not a simple question to answer, and even if we had a simple answer, the question being asked is the wrong one.
What question should be asked instead?
What you want to know is: How many people can you mobilize rather than how many can you control to realize the mission of the organization? And there is a reason why I said mobilize and did not say “motivate”.
You should NOT motivate people. Don't take that responsibility on. You should hire people who are motivated to do the task because it fits their personality needs and aspirations and try not to demotivate them.
Hiring mules and trying to motivate them to be racehorses is futile. Rather, you should hire racehorses and make sure they have all they need to run the best they can. Look for people that will pull you, not people that you will have to push. Rather than telling people what to do, tell them what not to do. Let them run. Your role is to make sure that they do not run in the wrong direction.
Why people, by and large, like to control rather than to mobilize motivated people they do not have to control.
Because people like power. Power is intoxicating. That's why some people go into politics. They believe they're going to have power. That's what keeps bureaucrats going: the salary is low, they don't know the mission of the organization, it’s not an enjoyable job, but they have power. They can send you back and forth to fill out form after form. Exercising power can be very gratifying.
When people lose power It's like being deprived of a drug. You see this happen in universities. The chairman of the department had power, then he or she was replaced by some rotation. They go back to their professorial office and keep the door open, hoping someone will come in for some advice, for some decision that needs them.
Those who focus on span of control do so because they want to control. We all want control. We want to control our spouse. We want to control our children. We want to control our clients and our employees. We want to control our environment. Feels more safe and secure. More certain.
The organization that relies the most on control to secure performance is the military. For the first several weeks or months you are in a bootcamp environment the exercises are designed to break your will. You all walk in line. When they say, "Stop," you stop. When the major sergeant says, "Turn left," you turn left. And they punish you if you don't. You all march in exactly the same way. Why do they march you around like this? To break your will. You do what you're told—not what you think, not what you want to do—you do what you're told to do. To maximize control they have over your actions. So, when they tell you, “Attack!" even though there is a danger to your life, you will attack like a trained dog. You will do exactly what you're told to do, without thinking. You are under control.
It's not the same thing with guerrilla forces, partisans, in small cells. They're not trained in that way. They just go in, blow up a building, or derail a train. Who told them what to do? The mission. They are motivated. Not controlled.
Over time, who wins? The guerrilla forces. Driven by a mission, not by orders.
The West is not going to beat insurgent, Muslim, radical terrorists. In spite of all its might, America lost in Vietnam and now in Afghanistan. The Russian mighty military licked its wounds and also removed itself from Afghanistan. Same thing in Israel. The Palestinian terrorists have no structure. Somebody gets up in the morning, takes a bomb on his body, says goodbye to his family, and goes and kills himself by taking as many Israelis with him as he can. What organized army can stop grass root mission driven people?
When it's organized, all you need to do is capture the commander-in-chief and the war is over. You cannot do that with grass root insurgents. You have to make them change the mission that motivates them.
We think in America that our enemy is Iran. In my judgment the bigger enemy is Saudi Arabia. They sell us oil, take our money, and build radical Muslim learning and prayer centers all over the world which provide a radical anti western mission to the believers that turn around and blow our Trade Center and take thousands of Americans to death.
Hire motivated people, motivated because they would kill to do the job of their dreams and or motivated by the mission. People that would do the job for free, pay them well, and from there on do not control what they do just be sure they know the mission and believe in it and in their eagerness do not make decisions you consider beyond the scope you need to be done.