The art of managing small teams

Jürg Widmer Probst

The art of managing small teams

Jurg Widmer Probst

‘Small is beautiful’. ‘Bigger is better’. We’re not going to get into the relative merits of small vs large teams here – we’re firm believers that there is a team size out there for every task. Some challenges demand the kind of creativity, agility and flexibility that small teams excel at – while other jobs require a considerably larger commitment of people power. Rather, we’d like to focus simply on how to manage a small team – something that we’ve had plenty of experience of over the years. Here are just a few of the things we’ve picked up.

  1. Have clearly defined roles – but not ‘silos’

Obviously, it’s crucially important in any team, no matter what the size, that everyone has a very clear idea of what their role is within that team. But this is particularly true of small teams. It’s important here to be clear that this isn’t just about knowing what they are supposed to be doing everyday – it’s also absolutely key that people also understand why they are doing it.

So, make sure all your team members know how the individual tasks they are doing fit into the bigger picture, and be very careful to make sure that everyone regularly shares knowledge with everyone else. This last point is absolutely vital, because small teams in particular can be susceptible to ‘single person dependency’ – that situation where only one person knows how to do a particular task. One person being off ill unexpectedly in a team of four means a quarter of your workforce has suddenly disappeared – make sure that a quarter of your knowledge doesn’t go with them.

  1. Have a very clear way of working

Building on this idea that it is important for everyone to have a clear idea of what they’re doing, it’s also vital for everyone to agree how they’re doing it. If you’re a small team, it’s likely that you’re working in a small space, so it’s crucial that you all feel comfortable about the environment you’re sharing.

So, we recommend setting very clear ways of working – everything from who makes the tea and coffee to who takes notes in meetings (by the way, we recommend rotating this one, so people don’t feel as if the pressure is all on them). Again, it’s about sharing both knowledge and responsibility, so that everyone feels that they have a stake and a say in the business. Of course, having a clear way of working doesn’t mean that you have to be rigid – one of the beauties of having a small team is the agility and adaptability to change that it brings. But change in itself can be a challenge.

  1. Expect change

It is a fact of life – small teams feel change more keenly than large ones. For example, small businesses will most likely experience a lot of staff turnover – and this is all normal: people join small companies, get valuable experience, and then move on to bigger (but not necessarily better) things. But in a small team it can have a huge impact – just as someone who joins and brings a wealth of career experience can also dramatically change the dynamics of a team. So, it’s essential that as a leader you’re sensitive to the new mix of skills and personalities that you’re faced with.

Expecting change and being resilient then is key – but another great strategy for preparing your team for change is also simply to make the team think and feel bigger. By this, we mean making sure that the outlook of the team is outward, not inward. It can often be easy for small teams to turn in on themselves, and to become a bubble.

So, try to encourage everyone within the team to take a more external facing attitude, and to take responsibility not just for how your small team sees them, but for their reputation in the sector you operate in as a whole. They might do this by going to networking events or representing your business as a key speaker at a conference.

Some small businesses might not like the idea of this because they are afraid that their best employees will be poached – but we’d argue that this is simply a reality of modern business, particularly in sectors like the tech industry. So, we think it’s better to encourage them to be the best they can be, and to be in charge of their own self development – and you’ll be surprised how many people actually want to stick with companies that let them do that.

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