Roleplaying teams’ dynamic from 2 to 5+ person

Yesterday I gave my opinion on why a team of 4 or 5 is preferable in the context of a student […]

Yesterday I gave my opinion on why a team of 4 or 5 is preferable in the context of a student team learning agile. On the contrary, when facilitating a group I would advise no more than 3 or 4 people : to get cohesive thinking without preliminary team building.

But where do I get this from, exactly ?
Well, you know, over the course of my career I… well, not exactly.
I get that from roleplaying games. Dungeon & Dragons and Cyberpunk, mostly. My fellow dungeon masters and I shared our views and came to this observation:

From 2 to 6, the big tendancies we’ve seen among players

A pair of 2 works but may lack balance

and improvement over time. If they fit, they are like dancers. But if they are not, like an unbalanced leader/follower relation, they may lack any system to re-equilibrate themselves during the course of a game session.
2 points does not tell a circle.
So having a random team of 2 requires luck. You hire a pair that works well together, usually because they worked together beforehands, or you roll the dices and hope for the best.

A team of 3 is immediately fluent

in terms of decision making and coordination. This may be the most efficient team system we’ve seen.
1 on 1 dynamic are usually balanced by the 3rd teammate who provides circularity and stands back. This kind of team can smoothly reconfigure itself depending on time and context.
They tend to work focussed. Usually a pair is taking care of a major file, while minor stuff around is handled by the third one, sometimes in a facilitator-like position.
But these teams usually lack muscle. In Dungeon and Dragons, they may be warriors lacking offensive magic or curative powers, or being skilled in magic but lacking toughness for frontal fight.

A team of 4 has power with a proper coordination

The team wins ubiquity : they can focus on 2 subjects at a time with the resilience and insight of 2 people. no one works alone. Also, there’s a higher chance to find two pairs fitting together among all combinations.
Regarding muscle, this kind of team usually gets a broader skill spectrum. Weapons, endurance, magic, healing power, leadership, etc. They may not be powerful on all domains but they rarely have any criticAal weakness.
Now they need little time before they become efficient and team building is required. There’s a risk of a 3 + 1 dynamic, and to the teammate involved in the 3-person triangle the lack of circularity may not be obvious. It’s harder to realize that the 4th teammate is left apart or underused.
To sum up, a 4 person group can not only be efficient but also powerful. However it requires more warmup and a bit of training. It’s rarely top notch on day one.

A team of 5 requires training to be efficient

With a team of 5 you start to be in a 3+2 dynamic or 2+2+1 facilitator… or 3 against 2 or… 4 and a black sheep. With this size a real attention needs to be paid to coordination and alignment regarding decision making.
If that’s where you want to dig with your students, then that’s the size you’re looking for.
But, again, longer time slots are required for rituals or work chunks. Self-awareness discussions often require « warming up », which is slower when there’s more attendees. Disfunctioning of the group requires time to reveal itself and more time to be addressed properly.

One final word : on complexity thinking and self-awareness

Group are like systems : their complexity grow exponentially. There’s exponentially more relations involved, and exponentially more parameters to any decision.
A little experience : draw your team on a paper. One dot for each teammate placed on a circle. Now draw a line each time there’s an activity shared by 2 person. Some patterns emerge.
(this drawing is called a sociomap, by the way)
Not only on smaller teams the patterns are simpler, but also more obvious because the strokes become thicker.
Same goes for the team. Self-awareness is difficult for a team bigger than 7 because communication patterns are more spread and confused, while small groups experience more dense interpersonal relations with a simpler dynamic.
For all these reasons, if gathering a team bigger than 3, I would suggest that a) you start with 3 and bring new people 1 by 1 (each week for example), or 2) have them work in small subgroups for a short period of time before merging.

Playing dungeon and dragons would be, of course, my best recommandation 🙂

Tags: Agile Facilitator, Agile Fundamentals, Agile Management, Roleplaying Game, Small Team, Team Dynamic, Team Size