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Advantages of Small Project Teams
By Mike Coyle

The needs of small, disciplined project teams are largely unrecognized and under-served in the project management community. We started our company to bring the necessary people, process, and technology to small teams so that they can leverage their constraints and deliver value to their customers in a predictable and instrumented fashion.

Too many small project teams either wander their way through the project lifecycle alone, or end up suffocating under a heavy, inappropriate layer of bureaucratic oversight that makes project delivery slower and more painful, but doesn’t necessarily reduce any tangible delivery risks.

We are convinced that the future of project delivery is small, distributed teams. We are fortunate to be in a position to expedite this trend through our software, consulting, and writing.

Below is an imaginary interview highlighting the advantages of small project teams.

Isn’t bigger generally better?

No. Having more people on your team is not like having more money in the bank.

For example, jazz quartets don’t want to be orchestras when they grow up. The two are different beasts.

If you try to run a jazz quartet like a symphony, you get bad jazz. Run a 20-piece orchestra like a jam session, and you end up with chaos. The same goes for project teams. If you run a small project like a miniature large project, you end up with….pretty much what you see in corporate environments everyday. Namely, too many meetings, lots of low-value boilerplate documentation, and other administrative overhead that gets in the way of solving the real problems at hand.

Don’t get me wrong, a team of 4 people still needs to play by the book, but it’s a different book.

Why does the size of a team matter? Aren’t there universal best practices for project management?

At a high-level, there are a number of universal truths that the Project Management Institute, and other organizations have done a wonderful job categorizing and articulating. However, when it comes time to tactically implement these best practices, you see the entire spectrum of implementation choices, from hyper-bureaucratic process overkill to Wild West-style chaos.

In theory, practice and theory are the same. In practice, they are profoundly different.

This is why it is so important to have strict adherence to a lightweight process. As a project manager, you want to spend your overhead capital wisely, applying documentation and other process-related protocols to the specific areas of project risk that are relevant to your project.

What types of things are more difficult for small teams, aside from the shortage of manpower?

There are three general challenges for a small team. First of all, distractions and overhead can be a significant drain of time and attention. Second, context switching can be expensive, as members of small teams often wear multiple hats. Lastly, having fewer team members to draw insight from can result in less diverse domain expertise brought to the table.

Are there any advantages that come from having a small team?

Certainly. Small effective teams understand the nimble clarity that comes with having few moving parts. They have conversations rather than meetings.

Small teams separate the wheat from the chaff, since there’s nowhere for underperformers to hide. As a result, I’ve found that higher-skilled resources are more likely to prefer working in smaller teams, since there’s a bit of self-selection at play. For example, rock stars know that poor performers are more interested in being the 16th person on a 16-person team than the 3rd person on a 3-person team.

What kinds of special needs do small teams have?

Small teams need to behave like small teams, not miniature versions of large teams, because bureaucracy doesn’t scale down particularly well. Small teams need to be led by a project manager that understands the dynamics of small team delivery. Specifically, someone who picks their battles carefully and doesn’t mind getting their hands dirty from time-to-time. Additionally, small teams need to use the best tools available, as they cannot afford to arbitrarily throw labor at problems.

Are there particular issues that come when team members are dispersed around the globe?

Small teams should strive for “location transparency”, regardless of the team’s physical locale. Collaborative technology (and the day-to-day practices that support collaborative processes) should be employed whether team members are separated by a hallway or an ocean.

What ways can small teams work most effectively to accomplish big tasks?

There are four aspects that drive small-team effectiveness: Planning, Process, Automation, and Asset Management.

  • Planning: Small teams need to focus their efforts on understanding how the key moving parts of their project fit together so that they can proactively categorize and manage delivery risk. This is far more important than trying to optimize the workload balancing in your project plan, since you’re not trying to distribute lots of work among interchangeable resources on a large team.
  • Process: Small teams should maintain strict adherence to a lightweight process. Individual heroics are not scalable nor predictable over time. Even small teams need to play by the book, but they need to make sure that it’s the right book for them.
  • Automation: Small teams need to maximize the amount of work that they don’t do, and focus their efforts on the important stuff. If work cannot be avoided, it should be automated. Computers are really good at doing predictable stuff really fast.
  • Asset Management: Small teams should manage their important data using some sort of version control mechanism. A good version control system acts as a time machine in case users need to review and/or compare previous versions of a document or other artifact, and a bank vault to protect a single, current version of the truth for each project asset.

I also found the comment intriguing that large teams are usually bands of small teams in disguise, and I’d like your thoughts on that.

We coined that phrase to help decision makers understand the true nature and composition of their organizations, and soften any negative connotations that the “small teams” concept would have in larger organizations.

At the end of the day, projects get talked about by large teams and completed by small teams (or groups of small teams working together).

Any team can make a decision. Only small teams make great decisions.

Any team can do work. Only small teams do efficient work.

It’s true that there is strength in numbers, but sometimes that strength lies in small numbers.

Note: The above article was slightly modified from its original source. You can find the original article here: My PM Network Interview, or Tales from the Cutting Room Floor

Mike Coyle is a co-founder of Botonomy LLC.

Prior to founding Botonomy, Mike spent five years with Alliance Consulting in Philadelphia. Mike came to Alliance Consulting from EDS to assist in the startup and management of Alliance’s Solution Center.

Mike holds an MBA and an undergraduate degree in Accounting from La Salle University. Prior to embarking on a technology-related career path, he passed the Uniform CPA examination and spent several years in the Mortgage Banking industry.

He has extensive experience in IT solution sales, full-lifecycle project management, and client delivery. He is well-versed in the practical application of the Rational Unified Process (RUP) and Extreme Programming (XP) methodologies. Mike has provided numerous clients in a variety of industries with pre-sales guidance, delivery oversight, and counsel on issues related to application development and integration.

Mike has sold, architected, and managed solutions on .NET and Java/J2EE platforms, and has leveraged a variety of Open Source software. A technologist at heart, he is proficient in over a half-dozen programming languages. His detailed understanding of a broad set of technologies and process disciplines give him a unique and advantageous perspective when addressing the challenges faced by IT management. This versatility allows him to play a variety of roles with a high degree of conviction, expertise, and effectiveness.

Equally at home working with CIOs and developers, Mike’s unique background and skill set make him a credible and effective communicator when working with both technical and business-centric audiences.

Mike’s professional blog can be found at: http://mcoyle.botonomy.com.

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