Athletes or Developers? What’s the Optimal Ratio of Doers vs. Support Staff in an Agile Organisation?


If you’re going to the Olympic Games and can pay for 100 people to go, how many athletes would you take and how many “support staff” (coaches, physios, administrators, the head of your national Olympic committee, etc.)?

If you’re going to the Olympics what is the optimal ratio of athletes to support staff?

There is no precise answer. However, you would definitely want to take more athletes than support staff. Extremes would be sub-optimal. Taking 100 athletes and no support staff would likely result in a much worse overall performance than if you got the balance ‘just right’? Whilst this is a question that falls into the ‘it depends’ answer category, I would expect that there is a generally accepted ‘rule of thumb’ ratio for optimal performance.

My gut tells me that it would be about 70 – 80 athletes to 20 – 30 support staff. Anything outside of this range and you’d want to be questioning whether you are doing the right thing. I would also expect that the most competitive, high-performing teams would look for ways to maximise the number of athletes and minimise the number of support staff without negatively impacting the performance of the athletes. Essentially, a sensible, well-run team would try to maximise their potential medal haul.

But what is the correct balance when it comes to an agile organisation? I have been trying to find out whether there are industry research papers, recommendations or even rules of thumb at the organizational, department or agile release train (ART) levels but have come up short*.

* If anyone does have industry data supporting an optimal ratio (or ranges) please let me know. My attempts to get some more information on this topic was the catalyst for this article.

Athletes or Developers

There are many misnomers in the agile world. The Scrum Guide, the source of the most ‘popular’ form of agile, is responsible for several of these misnomers*, one of which is the term ‘developers’. The Scrum Guide definition is, “Developers are the people in the Scrum Team that are committed to creating any aspect of a usable Increment each Sprint.”

* Sprint is another completely illogical term. For more on this topic see Life Lessons from the Road: It’s a Jog, not a Sprint

Definition of ‘Developers’ from the Scrum Guide (

However, the term developer still causes confusion within many software teams using Scrum as they interpret the term literally as ‘someone who writes code’ rather than generically as ‘a person doing the work’. When covering the roles of scrum master, product owner and developer with teams moving to agile ways of work, the most common question I’m asked is, “What about designers, analysts, testers and so on?” The term is even more problematic for non-software teams – and I suspect this perpetuates the misconception that agile is for software teams only.

I would propose ‘athletes’ as a much better term than ‘developers.’ Athletes are the people on the field of play. They are the only people who can win us medals, score us goals or actually get new products and solutions into the hands of our customers. In addition, it’s an inclusive term that encourages team behaviour – there’s no point being player of the match on a losing side.

If your organisation does succeed in creating autonomous, self-managing teams and you are not an athlete, then what is your role as a member of the support staff? Quite simply, it’s to create the structure and environment for the athletes to be successful. How do leaders achieve this? That’s the topic of the next article in this trilogy.

This is the first in a trilogy of articles covering athletes and agile leadership. Look out for part two (Three Hard Questions for Agile Leaders) and part three (Hard Work & Natural Talent Mean Nothing without Leadership Support)

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