How you can make your small team punch above their weight

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The numbers of new small businesses and entrepreneurs are rising in the UK, resulting in record employment levels! But even the largest businesses, like Amazon, are embracing a seemingly “small business” way of working – by making small teams the heart of their organisation. But what makes some small teams more successful than others? And what are the key ingredients that make for a superstar small team?

This week, we’ll show you our own experiences running small teams in an entrepreneurial environment and to teach you how to make your small team punch above their weight.

What stops a small team working well?

Imagine that you are starting a new business. What kind of structure would you set up? I’m not talking about who has what job title, or whether the company has a profit share scheme, I mean the day-to-day working structure of how people work together in the organisation. This is the most important structure you’ll decide on – and it is your opportunity to lay the foundations for great small teams.

Smaller businesses often mean that the only possible team size is “small” – but not all small businesses have great, motivated teams.

There are a few things you’d want to get out of a good working structure…

  1. Fast, clear communication
  2. Well organised and goal-oriented
  3. Transparency and Responsibility
  4. Few dependencies outside the team
  5. The right skills and tools
  6. Positive team spirit

… and a few things you’d want to avoid.

  1. Lack of accountability
  2. Poor leadership or freeloaders
  3. Blame culture
  4. Rudderless focus
  5. Poor planning
  6. Roadblocks outside of the team’s control

So, how do you build teams that have the positive set of traits above, rather than the negative?

The definition of a ‘team’ is a group of people who have complementary skills needed to work towards a common goal. The synergy and commitment created by the team members generates performance that is greater than the sum of the performance of its individual members.

Staff are the ambassadors of the company and its brand – they will build the business. Teams need a range of skills and need to be able to work together.  Building a team and a working environment for that team builds a community. You’ll spend a long time – together, and work on some really great things – together. It is important to get it right – not only for the company but for the individuals involved too.

What a small team needs to succeed

Power – a productive team needs to solve its own problems

The late, great Stan Lee said it best: “With great power there must also come – great responsibility!” In business, as in comic books, great power and great responsibility go hand in hand. To function effectively small teams need both, within the purview of the team’s role in the business.

When some managers think about power and responsibility they think about how it can be limited. In some cases, this can be very prudent! But small teams do their best work when they have the ability to resolve their own problems. When they can experiment, make mistakes and take responsibility for them, always moving forward with new ideas and new approaches.

Where power and responsibility are concerned one concept that often rears its head is structure. Who reports to whom, what are the lines of communication, who can hold meetings with so-and-so… in a big organisation, this is important. In a small team, it’s often a hindrance.

A team’s structure can help increase productivity, increase engagement, stimulate creativity and encourage strong relationships. Sounds good… but how do you achieve this?

Many small businesses tackle this by lacking a formal structure or tend to adopt a very flat structure. In a small organisation, most employees know who they report to, as it is usually a single person. But the team itself has a flat structure, where everyone’s voice, ideas and skills have an equal place.

For a small team to succeed, what needs to accompany this flat structure is very real responsibility, and the power to actively pursue and accomplish the team’s goals. Power and responsibility really do go hand in hand, and in a small team how you use that power is very easy to spot. Due to increased visibility in smaller teams, it is much easier to identify team members that aren’t pulling their weight, or are not committed to the success of the team’s objectives.

Team size – how many people is optimal for a small team?

Jeff Bezos has claimed that if a team can’t be fed by two pizzas, then the team is too big. It’s a great, visual indicator of ideal team size, which isn’t constrained by organisation, company size or industry. But what is Bezos getting at? Why two pizzas?

Now, not everything at Bezos’ company, Amazon, is rosey. In fact, at the time of writing it has been reported that conditions and stress levels in some parts of the business are at breaking point. But the lesson of the two-pizza team is well worth taking on board.

Bezos’ aim is to avoid unnecessary people being involved in things that a small team should be able to resolve themselves, which he identifies as a major drain on time and energy.

So what can this handful of 4-6 pizza-eaters accomplish that larger groups can’t?

Smaller teams are usually more agile, completing tasks in a shorter time than larger teams. This may be very important if you are working to strict deadlines. Aside from there being less communication and more action in a small team it has been shown that as team size increases, individual productivity and effort tends to decrease. What’s more, studies have shown that in larger teams it is harder to see the efforts of an individual. In larger teams, there are people that will sit back and think they don’t need to work as hard as they think that nobody can see what they are doing…

Communication – the benefits of everyone being in the loop

Communication is key – it is vital to the success of not only the team but the business. Keeping the team small decreases the complexity of communication. Imagine trying to play a board game with 4 people – it works well. But as the number of people playing increases, the length of time each round or turn takes also increases. As soon as you’ve added so many people to the game that some of them are in another room, you’ve got problems! A smaller team means closer integration and familiarity with other team members – leading to a more personable and friendly workplace. You might even get a chance to play that board game.

The bad thing about communication is that it takes time away from doing stuff. Some guides say that small teams should be communicating “all the time” – and I think they’re missing the point slightly. Communication should always be possible – but in order too complete tasks or projects, it must be possible for team members to focus completely on tasks, uninterrupted, for several hours. This is the only way to complete elements of complex projects involving creativity, precision or highly analytic thinking.

One tool at small teams’ disposal is the 15 minute “stand up” meeting – a neat idea lifted from SCRUM methodology (a great framework which small teams across all disciplines can learn from). At the start of every day, the team holds a brief meeting, often literally standing up so that it doesn’t drag on. In a stand up meeting each participant cover 3 points:

  1. What did I do yesterday that helped our project?
  2. What I am doing today to help our project?
  3. What problems do I anticipate with working towards my goals?

The team can then work towards alleviating these problems, working as a coherent group to overcome any setbacks or issues that arise.

Communication isn’t always so regimented though. Quick informal or coffee break meetings are easy to organise if you all work from the same office. Group Skype chats and software that allows collaboration and project tracking (eg Slack, Trello, Monday, Evernote) are all useful for keeping everyone in the team up to date and on-board with what is happening. Video-conferencing tools, such as Go-to-meeting, Skype and Zoom can save travelling time and carbon footprint.

Motivation – self-motivated people capable of managing their own workload

Team members need to ‘fit’, particularly if working in a close environment. Some companies now tend to hire on fit rather than skills and experience, as many skills required in the workplace can be taught. Team leadership often comes from several areas within a team, encouraging the growth of leadership skills across all members of small teams. The idea of ‘intrapreneurship‘ is a fascinating topic that really thrives in a small team environment, and can be a great boon to the companies which embrace it.

Team members understand the importance of their role within the team, get more from their position and gain a better understanding of the business as a whole. As such they tend to be more engaged and productive. Transparency of tasks, roles, goals, expectations and objectives helps the team stay focussed.

All teams need committed, enthusiastic hard workers – and in a small team this is even more apparent. Team members need to be able to roll their sleeves up, have a proactive, ‘can-do’ attitude and focus on the goals.

With smaller companies, teams and therefore budgets, it is often necessary to think differently and come up with new ideas, and this is often much easier in a small team if staff feel confident to express opinions, and know that their ideas will be given due consideration. It is also often easier to implement new ideas as there is less red-tape and layers of management approval that are required. It can encourage individual talent, flair and entrepreneurial skills that will benefit both the company and the individual.

An open and honest working relationship with team members builds trust – which is vital if your team is going to function effectively. You need to know that staff will be looking out for each other and can step in and help when required. An open door policy works well for fostering trust.

An effective, focussed and happy team is more stable, and lead to less staff turnover – meaning less recruitment and training for new staff that have to be brought in.

Freedom to utilise and develop personal strengths

Personal development and self-improvement should be built into the experience of being in a small team. Team members should be encouraged to value their own personal development – and encourage growth and learning for all staff. This might mean signing up for online training or webinars or attending a relevant conference or training day.

Employees in small teams and businesses tend to wear many hats. This generally means that their workload is varied, with opportunities to work in different areas. This variation in everyday activities can give staff the opportunity to find interests, strengths and abilities in areas that they may not have previously thought of.

Working in a small team or company can also get you noticed. Contribution, ability and great work in small teams are easily recognised (the reverse is also true!), and the potential is always there for taking increased responsibility.

Small teams allow less experienced team members to work directly alongside more experienced colleagues. This can be great for personal growth and also for giving less experienced team members a chance to table their own ideas in a collaborative, healthy environment.
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What a successful small team looks like

Most people, whether they know it or not, do in fact work well in small teams. It’s a natural unit size for human cooperation – beyond which the latency of communication can gum up the works of a team’s efficient operation. It’s just that not every small team is given the resources and freedom to bloom. We have found that empowering small teams to make their own choices, to be responsible for their efforts and to have a real, tangible impact on businesses leads to great, creative success.

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