How Small Teams Get Shit Done
Have you ever felt the magic of working with a small team to execute on a project and it went so well that you think, why can’t it be like this all the time? Sometimes it seems like the stars have to align in order to have the chance to do great work with great people. There’s more that goes into it, but the good news is, it’s not complicated. The next time you’re planning a project and combining people on a team, keep these strategies in mind.
Alignment of Goals
It’s no surprise that when teams are motivated, great things happen. Communication flows, the work seems easier, funner and happens quicker. People typically feel rewarded for the time spent and want to come back the next day to do it again. Research shows that there is one essential trait that enables motivation: clarity on goals.
Clarity on goals allows each team member to work towards a shared vision; the more specific and well articulated the goal is, the more attainable it becomes. When team members understand and buy into the same shared vision and know what they are personally responsible for, it becomes much easier to communicate and execute.
There is also evidence that that collaboration improves when the roles of individual team members are clearly defined and well understood.
So there we have it, clarity and definition FTW!
Combine the Right People
Often times teams are formed based on the various and different skill sets needed to accomplish the task(s). Oddly, companies don’t put as much thought into the players on the team and their potential chemistry or lack thereof. It’s not as easy as putting a bunch of smart people together. A group of smart people can do great things but they can also do disastrous things. Just as effort and results do not share a linear relationship. It’s not that smart people with good chemistry can’t also do disastrous things; it’s just less likely as — based on my personal experience — ego is less of an issue because in the case of chemistry, you’re really taking into consideration other people’s point of view and balancing them with your own. Ego builds walls, chemistry breaks them down and also enables teamwork, respect and a capacity to really listen!
Good team chemistry enables one thing that is a main driver for great outcomes: collaboration.
Collaboration can sometimes be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It can appear as if it’s happening when it’s not. Meetings, groupthink and or both of these things combined with no resulting action(s) or progress can give the appearance of collaboration when there is none.
What Enables Chemistry?
If you have felt positive team chemistry before, it’s easy to attribute it to just getting along or working really well together. It goes deeper than that and a couple studies indicate why team chemistry happens.
1. Equal Contribution
- Team members contributed equally to discussions
- One or two people do not dominate the group
2. Social Sensitivity
- How well individuals work together
- How well individuals can correctly read the emotions of other people
- Ability to perceive and understand the feelings and viewpoints of others
3. Women Rule
- Teams with more women seem to perform better ↓
“There’s little correlation between a group’s collective intelligence and the IQs of its individual members. But if a group includes more women, its collective intelligence rises.” — Source
Pair (Work Together)!
There’s so much software that enables us to not actually communicate anymore. It’s been proven that working remotely has many personal benefits and increases quality of life and many times the quality of work. However when you are on a team, building something together, the one and only best way of doing so is being in the same room or sitting at the same desks. Pairing allows the people involved in creating the thing to work and communicate together in real-time and collaborate in a way that pushes ideas and progress forward quickly. There is another outcome which often goes unnoticed because it happens so naturally, which is:
The process of pairing allows for diversity in ideas; because of this the end result is better.
There is also a business case for pairing. In a software development context, where two developers pair to complete a task— there are 15% on average less defects. You can imagine the long term benefits and cost savings this creates for the organisation when it comes to maintaining the software. Pairing can also lead to increased job satisfaction, this research shows that 96% of developers stated that they enjoyed their work more than when they didn’t program alone and 95% said that they were more confident in their solutions when they pair programmed. Whoa!
Pairing is common outside of a programming context.
Saturday Night Live
“You have to really thrive in a collaborative environment because no one at SNL goes off alone to write — it’s all about working together. Almost all of our sketches are written by two or more people. It’s usually a writer and a cast member, but often it’s two writers or even three writers. We have several writers on our staff who have partnered up.”
Designers & Developers
- Designers pair with developers to implement interface designs and suss out other details like animations and transitions. Here’s a picture of a desk shared by myself (designer) and a developer.
Data Scientists & Clients
- Data Scientists pair with clients to develop use cases and to help them understand the code base better.
“In the process, you understand the business requirements better which helps to speed up the process. Pairing with a colleague makes exploration and development of a DS use case much more fun. Besides helping in knowledge and skill exchange it’s a good way to mitigate risk.”
Maybe someday (if not already), data scientists will pair with people who excel at creative and critical thinking in order to make more sense of data than data scientists can by themselves.
Focus & Constraints
Emphasis on everything leads to no emphasis at all.
If there’s one thing I love more than pairing, it’s a tight scope of work! A tight scope creates a loop that is much easier to close (increasing your chance of success). One of the best ways to create a tight scope is to get very comfortable saying no. No to all the things you could pursue and pick carefully the things that are worth pursuing right now. If you work in digital product development and are familiar with MVP’s you know how truly important this is. It happens in much larger contexts as well…
In 1997 when Apple was making a variety of computers and peripherals, Steve Jobs chopped the line into a fraction of products allowing the company to have a clear focus and thereby an ability to execute.
“He grabbed a Magic Marker, padded in his bare feet to a whiteboard, and drew a two-by-two grid. ‘Here’s what we need,’ he declared. Atop the two columns, he wrote “Consumer” and “Pro.” He labeled the two rows “Desktop” and “Portable.” Their job, he told his team members, was to focus on four great products, one for each quadrant. All other products should be canceled. There was a stunned silence. But by getting Apple to focus on making just four computers, he saved the company.” —Source
Constraints have been linked to higher creative output. In two studies, Rider University psychologist Catrinel Haught-Tromp found that students produced more creative writing samples when they were forced to abide by certain arbitrary rules. The enhanced creativity seemed to have some longevity as it lasted after the constraints were lifted.
“Catrinel Haught-Tromp refers to this as the Green Eggs and Ham hypothesis, named after the famous Dr. Seuss book that came about as a result of a particular provocation. Writer/illustrator Theodore Geisel was given a challenge by his publisher: Write a book small children will love using no more than 50 words (which could be repeated as often as needed). The result became a classic. “— Source
One of the finest examples of creative constraints I’ve ever seen, which is most memorable is what happens on Project Runway when designers have a day to create an outfit compared to a few months to create a line. The time constraint in this context ignited the creativity of designers, giving some the ability to produce highly creative work. Often times, the more open-ended timeline gave designers too much time to think and not act, resulting in somewhat mediocre work. In the words of Tim Gunn, “make it work!
Eliminate Distractions & Self Organize
Let’s just cut to the chase on this one: clear your calendar and either isolate yourselves, or have a clear way to communicate to your colleagues — not to interrupt you and your team. At the core of both of these objectives is: teams need blocks of focused time to concentrate and get work done.
Distractions not only take you away from the task at hand, but a three second distraction can increase error rates by 50%! 😱
Distractions can cost organisations millions of dollars of year due to the cost of context switching alone:
“You have to completely shift your thinking, it takes you a while to get into it and it takes you a while to get back and remember where you were…We found about 82 percent of all interrupted work is resumed on the same day. But here’s the bad news — it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.” — Source
The same study shows that in some cases, interrupted tasks can get completed in less time with no difference in quality, but can have other impacts such as increased stress, frustration, time pressure and effort.
An open office is a modern day tragedy of work.
One way of cutting down on distractions is wearing headphones; I’ve had some degree of success with this but some people don’t respect the signal or perhaps don’t see it as one. I’ve found the best way to decrease distractions is to simply communicate with your team. Alternatively, a physical object can be used to indicate to your co-workers when you’d like to not be disturbed. This cool LED “do not disturb” light was created for this purpose.
For teams to excel, they should have the ability to work and self-organise in a fashion that is most fitting for them and the context of the project. Or rather, the processes and procedures that the company uses to govern projects at large, may not work in a small-team, GSD context. Consider allowing teams to decide how they can effectively and efficiently:
- Manage the project and tasks to be completed
- Report to managers
- Communicate updates to the company or broader teams
- Divvy up work
What’s your story?
Can you relate to any of these strategies, have you tried them? I would love to hear from you, leave your ideas and comments in a reply!
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