“Small is beautiful.” So championed British economist E. F. Schumacher, and those of us who have worked in small teams are highly likely to agree.
Small teams (10 and under) often work on highly complex problems, in fast-moving environments and with a high degree of trust. A great team can deliver amazing projects and create bonds that go far beyond the office, with team members becoming lifelong friends.
Or, it might not work out like that at all!
Small teams have their challenges too. And while many of the problems are similar to the ones that all teams face—disagreements, clashing personalities, unclear priorities—there are some challenges that are more specific to smaller teams.
Here are five common problems that you might face while working in a small team, and how you can solve each one. (If you act early, you might even avoid some of these!)
You Take Your Teammates for Granted
When you’ve worked in a small team for a while, you tend to take liberties because you know you can get away with it. Someone always gets the coffees. Someone always talks about sports and someone else is the complainer. Like a family, you create your role and patterns.
But, as sometimes happens in families, you can end up taking each other for granted.
Taking your teammates for granted means not showing appreciation when someone helps you out or does standout work on a project. It’s easy to expect certain behaviors as standard: There’s the person who always meets the deadline, someone else who alerts you of schedule changes the second something comes up, the person who pitches in when extra features get added. Either because this is the status quo or you get really busy, it’s easy to forget to stop and say a simple “thank you” or “nice job.” Everyone wants to feel like they matter—think about how it makes you feel when a team mate acknowledges something you did.
To solve the problem: It’s easy to underestimate the value someone brings to the team, especially if you see them bringing their A game day after day. Schedule some time as a team to meet and go through your successes—those you’ve had individually and together. Also remember to put time in your project plan for a little celebration at the close of a project. It’s a nice (and easy) way to thank each other for the efforts on a project. And don’t forget to say some kind words in passing, it takes mere seconds.
In a big team you can generally avoid that annoying person who always wants to tap you for advice when you’re really busy. But in a small team you can’t avoid clashes in personality or working style because that person is always right there.
Differences are more obvious because there are fewer people to dilute the effect of someone noisy or abrupt. Clashing work styles can create an uncomfortable atmosphere at work where someone insists on doing a task a particular way, despite that not being the best way for the team.
To solve the problem: The best way to avoid clashes of working style and personality is to hire carefully. Really carefully. If you can, involve other team members in the hiring process and think about cultural fit as well as their skills. The next best solution is to make sure that you have processes in place for common project management tasks so that there is only one way to do the work. This should smooth some of the clashes by creating common standards.
People Are Harder to Replace
When your team is only a few people, losing someone can be a huge blow. Whether this absence is for a few days or a week (training, holiday, sick), or they leave the company, an absent colleague leaves a big hole in the team.
In small teams, there’s a greater chance that everyone stretches to take on more work, or each individual is an expert in an area. This means when someone’s gone you’ll miss her knowledge, her input to the project and the role she plays both practically and socially in the team.
To solve the problem: Systems, processes and tools make it easier to store organizational knowledge and project information. In other words, document everything. This way, if someone does drop out of the team for any reason, you’ve got the vast majority of what they know codified in your project management tool.
However, it won’t help replace their cheerful smile or their in-depth knowledge of 1980s pop music for the company quiz night.
You Share Too Much of the Work
Wait, isn’t this an advantage? In a project environment, especially if you’re working with Agile or Lean methods, it’s often all about being proactive about taking responsibility and doing what needs to be done to get the job completed.
But when everyone is having a go at everything, there can be problems. For example, two of you might decide to do the same task and not let each other know. Or, two team members contact a customer to ask a question or set up a meeting. While it’s great that your team is proactive and everyone steps up when a task needs doing, sharing the workload without talking about who is doing what can be a massive problem.
It’s also a problem when the reverse happens: Everyone thought that someone else booked the meeting room; or that another teammate contacted the client, when nobody did. In small teams, where you expect the team to self-manage, you risk more tasks falling through the cracks.
To solve the problem: Clear lines of communication help but the problem is really about organizing work responsibility. Project management software can keep everyone on the same page. It makes it easy to shift responsibility about too, so if you’ve got a regular task that needs to be done it can be rotated around the team. Don’t think that just because you’re a small team you don’t need a work management tool!
Too Much to Do, Not Enough Time!
Small teams struggle to get everything done. It’s something I’ve seen over and over again, in my teams and in others. With limited resources it’s hard to fit all the work in. Also, small teams are often made up of highly motivated, dedicated individuals and they all want to offer the best service and products to customers.
That can lead to gold-plating the solution or spending too much time researching new technical options and so on—on top of trying to get the day job done.
To solve the problem: Systemize! Get as much of your job, project, processes and tasks automated and repeatable. Don’t reinvent the wheel on every project: Use templates for schedules and documentation. Standardize your processes as much as possible so you don’t have to think about them. Use top quality project management software to make your processes as seamless as possible.
When people come together to work together, there will always be hiccups. But today, we have so many tools and processes to use and a wealth of knowledge to tap, there’s always a way to navigate these common problems.
Extra! Do you like being part of a team?
We took to the streets and asked people in downtown Seattle about their experience working in teams. Check it out here: