5 Small-team Lessons I Think About a Lot


I’ve just come off a four-year stint managing a small team of developers.  In looking back on things, I realize that I’ve been on a lot of small teams in my life.  In fact, I gravitate toward them.

Small teams are hyper-productive because there’s nothing like feeling like your contribution matters to get you going in the morning.  Success cascades through the bones of every member. Small teams excel at doing what we’re all here for: getting shit done.

Here are 5 things that I’ve learned from being part of small teams.

1. Be even more virtual.

A small team is a tightly knit crew but it’s critical that you don’t get locked into needing to see the whites of each others’ eyes.  When one person on a small team is out, it puts a real dent in productivity.  Small teams need to foster and build the ability to work virtually from each other since work travel, vacations, and other life obligations can so easily make virtual a reality.

2. Use tools to track projects and tasks.

It’s really important to use web-based tools to track projects and activities.  They provide two big advantages beyond project tracking. First, use them to document how issues get solved so you don’t have to re-remember everything the next time it comes up (it will).  Second, they enable team-members to work remotely from each other.

Two systems that I’ve used are Asana and WorkBoard.  They both provide robust free versions. Both provide excellent and intuitive interfaces.  And both have apps, too, so team-members can access and update information from wherever they are.  They are both excellent task-tracking tools.

There are lot of paid systems on the market, too.  Central Desktop is one that I’ve looked at and, of course Basecamp.

When using these tools, make sure that you carve out space for unassigned projects (Asana handles this better than Workboard, in my view). That way, team members with a few spare cycles can grab a project on their own.

3. Keep Communications Open

Keep a group IM window open all day (24 hours, if possible).  This is a great way for team members to broadcast out anything everybody needs to know.  Have group calls as often as possible.  Someone I know who is part of a small team has a daily 15-minute call with her team.  It’s a great idea because it’s a chance to touch base and — with high workloads a norm — it’s a chance to call out for help that might otherwise be ignored.  Email is oddly counter-productive but a necessary evil.  Above all, talk.

4. Everybody Leads.

Sure, there has to be someone who is technically the manager but everybody on a small team needs to be a leader. Here’s a real-life example of how group leadership works really well.

Prior to my recent tenure managing the web dev group, projects needed to be entered into a ticketing system. Then, the group manager vetted each project and assigned it out.  I know that sounds logical but it is filled with problems. The main problem is that ticketing systems homogenize all projects so something small has the same value as something huge.  Also, if the manager left his desk, productivity slowed to a crawl.

We turned that around. We got rid of the ticketing system and made each person in the group a potential entry point for a project.  This allows projects to start with a conversation instead of however-many-characters-fit-in-the-ticket-description-box.  Then an actual human being would write the project up in Asana and then present it to the group either during the weekly team call or before if it was really urgent.  Or — and this is the killer part — they might just go ahead and get it done.

5. Everybody Works.

If Everybody Leads then Everybody Works.  There’s no room on a small team for an ivory tower manager who sees the world from 30,000 feet.  The manager of the team needs to be able to lean in and help do the work that needs to get done.