Team Composition

By Michael Wilkinson, CMF
Managing Director, Leadership Strategies, Inc.

Special Topic: Selecting Participants

There is a common saying in the facilitator world, “If you are not at the table, you could be on the menu!” The implication, of course, is that if you are not participating in the decision-making, it is possible that decisions will be made that negatively impact you.

In helping an organization think through the right people to have engaged in a group process, SMART Facilitators ask three key questions:

  • Who are the people who will be impacted by the decision?
  • What level of involvement should they have in the process?
  • Whose perspectives, involvement, and buy-in are so critical that they should be at the table or represented by someone who is?

The first question allows you to consider all those impacted by the decision.  The second question helps you differentiate levels of involvement.  For example, some people may only need to be informed of decisions after the fact.  Others might provide input prior to the decision.  And still others might participate in the decision-making.  The final question helps you consider preliminary criteria for selecting those to have at the table.

Team Size

The target size for a team is highly dependent upon such factors as the amount of work to be accomplished, the nature of the work, the number of different departments or organization units impacted by the work, the sophistication and availability of personnel, etc.  As very general guidelines, consider the following sample team sizes.


Sample Team Sizes

Meeting Type

Target Size

Resolution Mode

You are attempting to resolve an issue by deciding between several specific alternatives for action


Small enough to ensure that each individual is heard and the perspectives can be discussed thoroughly to separate positions from underlying issues

Creation Mode

You are creating a solution, or developing a new method (e.g., process improvement)


Small enough to reach decisions on potential difficult issues, but large enough to have representation from all areas impacted

Direction Setting

You are establishing broad directions (e.g., strategic planning)


Large enough to gain a diversity of ideas, yet not so large as to make discussions unmanageable

Review Mode

You are reviewing and commenting on work previously performed (e.g., Status Meeting)

2 – 100+

Since the session is primarily review and comment (no resolution, creation or direction setting) the size is limited only by logistical considerations (e.g., size of room)

Desired Characteristics

Who are the right people to have in a facilitated session?  Once more, it depends on the meeting type.  If the facilitated meeting is anything other than a status meeting, we believe the participant should have the characteristics shown in the box below.


Sample Criteria for Participant Selection

All participants should. . .

  • Understand the issue under study
  • Have a stake in the outcome
  • Be empowered to make decisions or recommendations
  • Be perceived as leaders by peers
  • Be open to solutions other than their own

As a group, depending upon the session, the participants should…

  • Represent diverse communication styles
  • Be knowledgeable of all major activities in the business area
  • Be cross-functional and representative of all groups with a major stake in the outcome
  • Be drawn from various levels within the organization structure (e.g., managers, supervisors and workers)

Why are these criteria important?  Let’s examine each criteria a little closer, starting with the individual criteria.

  • Understand the subject under study. Participants who don’t understand the topic will likely take one of two positions.  Either they slow down the rest of the group by requesting explanations of unfamiliar topics, or they decide to reduce their level of session participation because they don’t feel they understand enough to make a valuable contribution.
  • Recommendation: If a large percentage of team members do not have a full grasp of the topic, use the first part of the session to bring everyone up to at least a minimum level of understanding.  Consider having the more knowledgeable team members provide parts of the education experience so they are not bored by the exercise.
  • Recommendation: If only a few people need education, considering holding an educational briefing just for those few prior to the session.  Once more, consider having the more knowledgeable team members involved in delivering the education.  In addition, consider informally (or formally) assigning content mentors (i.e., knowledgeable team members) for each person attending the briefing.
  • Have a stake in the outcome.  There are times when it is helpful to have people in a facilitated meeting who are not impacted in any significant way by the outcome of the meeting.  For example, including outside industry experts on a team attempting to address a company problem.  However, in many cases, people who do not have a stake in the outcome may become non-participants in the discussion, or can detour the group to topics of greater personal interest.
  • Be empowered to make decisions or recommendations.  It is not unusual for people to be assigned to a team as a representative from another group, with specific instructions NOT to comment.  Instead, they are directed to bring the information back for review so that others can decide what recommendations the representative is to make at subsequent facilitated meetings.  Limiting the ability of a team member to comment during the meeting can severely slow down the overall effort.  Further, since the representative is inhibited in his ability to express concerns or interact to create solutions, the team’s creativity and effectiveness is severely limited.
  • Be perceived as leaders by peers.  It is important to select people for a task force who are respected by their peers.  These people tend to be “opinion leaders.”  When opinion leaders show support for a direction, others tend to follow.  As well, opinion leaders typically ensure that any solution created addresses their concerns, which are often the concerns of others who share their opinion.
  • Be open to solutions other than their own.  While the members of a team need to be opinion leaders, they also need to be flexible and open to other solutions.  A completely closed-minded opinion leader (e.g., “There is only one solution…mine.”) can hinder a task force from discovering solutions that satisfy multiple needs.

Along with the five individual criteria, the participants as a group should satisfy the following.

  • Be cross-functional and representative of all groups with a major stake in the outcome.  The case study regarding sanitation workers from the previous chapter is an example of how a cross-functional group (i.e., a group drawn from multiple areas within an organization) might be important to achieve an acceptable outcome.  The team included representatives elected from each of the three sanitation centers.  In addition, others were added from human resources, finance and the union to ensure a fully representative group.  Once a solution was accepted by the Mayor, the team members began the process of gaining buy-in from their various “constituencies.”

The participation of opinion leaders is especially important when the individuals selected are intended to serve as “representatives” of various points of view as in the example of the sanitation workers.  In these cases, the team participants must be opinion leaders, not just people who are members of a particular sub-group.  People who are simply members are a sub-group are less likely to raise issues important to the sub-group and are less likely to be able to influence the opinions of others.

  • Be drawn from various levels within the organization structure. For some teams, it is important to have involvement from more than one level.  For example, to address improvements in the hiring process, it might be important to compose a team that includes hiring managers, human resource specialists, people recently hired into entry-level and mid-management positions.

In other types of facilitated sessions, such as strategic planning, it might be important to restrict the participants to one or two levels.  While in many strategic planning activities, input is received from various sources, the core strategic direction is established by senior management.  There are exceptions to this as well, however.  In our work with a major urban school system, their strategic planning activity included the superintendent of schools, principals, teachers, business people, community activists, parents and students.

  • Be knowledgeable of all major activities in the business area.   Going back to the task force assembled to address the hiring process, no one person on that team might understand the details of all the activities in the process.  However, the team was constructed in such a way to ensure that every step was fully understood by at least one team member.
  • Represent diverse communication styles.  In Chapter 9, “The Secrets of Managing Dysfunction,” I will discuss the major communication styles and how they impact a facilitated session.  There are numerous models available for assessing communication styles.  For its simplicity and ease of adaptation, we use the DISC model from Target Training International.  Using this model’s terminology (described in more detail in chapter 6), consider ensuring that the team has at least one person from each of the four style categories: dominance, influence, steadiness, compliance.  The different styles serve to balance the strengths and weaknesses of each other.  When one of the styles is missing from a team, its absence can hinder the team’s performance.

The recommended number from each style category will vary, depending upon the size of the team.  The box below gives what my experience has shown is an ideal distribution for a team of seven.


Sample Team Composition

Style Desired count if 7 Members Likely impact if team has no person with this dominant style Likely impact if team has too many with this dominant style
Dominance 1 Tendency to wander off topic or go into more analysis than time allows Disagreements over leadership, direction and control; little teamwork
Influence 1-2 Creativity may be lacking; low team energy or enthusiasm for the effort Tendency to wander off topic or accept high level solutions
Steadiness 3 Disagreements over leadership, direction and control; low support among team members Tendency to create solutions that don’t “push the envelope;” avoidance of tough issues and criticism
Compliance 1-2 Acceptance of high level solutions that may lack substance or viability Tendency to go into more analysis than time allows; low team energy and enthusiasm

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