How to Help Your Small Workplace Team Succeed

By Brian O'Connell September 29, 2020
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How to Help Your Small Workplace Team Succeed

​Are small workplace teams effective? Some savvy business innovators think so. After all, it was Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos who once said, "If you can't feed a team with two pizzas, it's too large."

Academia agrees. A 2019 Harvard Business Review study leans toward smaller teams. The study suggests that small workplace teams can "disrupt" conventional wisdom and get things done, according to authors Dashan Wang, a management professor at Northwestern University, and James A. Evans, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago.

"Our research suggests that team size fundamentally dictates the nature of work a team is capable of producing, and smaller team size confers certain critical benefits that large teams don't enjoy," Wang and Evans stated.

The study sought to "measure the disruptiveness" of workplace teams using "an established measure of disruption that assesses how much a given work destabilizes its field."

"This told us how the research eclipsed or made us rethink the prior 'state of the art,' setting a valuable new direction for others to follow," Wang and Evans wrote.

Why Small Teams Can Succeed

As Bezos and the Harvard Business Review study authors show, bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to workplace teams.

"Given the right resources, small teams can be incredibly powerful," said Michael Solomon, co-author of Game Changer: How to Be 10x in the Talent Economy (HarperCollins Leadership, 2020) and co-founder of 10x Management, a technology talent recruiting firm in New York City.

Solomon deploys an armed forces analogy to highlight the effectiveness of smaller workplace teams.

"If we think about the military, special ops are usually small units of highly trained, highly synchronized individuals who have prepared extensively, know each other incredibly well and are working toward a common goal," he said. "If companies can create a culture for small teams where there is a shared mission, a safe environment for constructive feedback and trust, there is little that can't be done."

For one project at his company, Solomon said, a team of between three and five people replaced a group of 35 to rebuild a product. "It was the right group of people with the right skills in the right culture, and they were able to literally achieve 10 times the result" of the larger team.

While smaller, more-nimble teams are commonplace at small businesses and startups with tight budgets, the concept can work at any company.

"Small teams can definitely be competitive against bigger teams, but the strategies are different," said John Doherty, chief executive officer and founder of GetCredo.com, a digital marketing company in Denver. "For instance, bigger teams will often have a lot more meetings and voices at the table, whereas smaller teams tend to motivate around a singular goal and focus. It really depends on what a company wants to achieve."

Getting Results with Smaller Teams: Top Tips

Team-building experts advise managers to consider these tips when building small teams:

Build an "ownership" mindset. Emphasizing ownership in a specific skill set is a great way to build small teams.

"Giving each person on a team an area of ownership helps small teams become more effective," Doherty said. "For example, I own business and marketing, my business partner owns the technology/software side, and we also have specialists on accounts, operations and finance."

Doherty's team uses Front, a business management tool, to steer tasks to the right person. "If something comes into our respective e-mail inboxes that should be handled by someone else, we can easily assign it to them and keep moving forward," he said.

Make accountability non-negotiable. Since fewer staffers are available, holding team members accountable is a must for small workplace teams.

"A smaller workplace team needs a combination of ingredients to succeed," said Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com, a business startup services provider in Calabasas, Calif.

Sweeney lists several traits she looks for when building smaller, efficient company teams: 

  • They must own their responsibilities. "Team members must be accountable for their work and for being able to drive assignments and initiatives." 
  • They should be accessible. "There must be an understanding of how to reach a team member with open communications leading to answers." 
  • They must be flexible. "Being flexible is important, as things quickly change and each member of a team must be nimble enough to handle those changes." 
  • They must be creative. "Smaller workplaces have fewer resources and less budget than companies with more money and team members. Creativity allows you to brainstorm ideas with your team that are cost-effective. These ideas may help differentiate your brand [from] an expensive option." 

Start planning early. Waiting until the last moment to get an assignment started and accomplished is a non-starter for those managing smaller teams. 

"Sometimes, starting late cannot be helped, as some assignments come through with tight deadlines," Sweeney said. "When that happens, it's critical that managers address the new priority with their teams, put a hold on existing work, and divide and conquer to quickly get the item with the most urgency completed."

When possible, managers should also encourage small teams to work ahead. "If they're caught up with one piece of their workload, have them start a piece that has been set aside for later," Sweeney added.

Curb team meetings. "With a smaller staff, I strive to avoid meetings," said Lotus Felix, founder of Flawless Content Shop, a content marketing company in West Palm Beach, Fla. "Conventionally, meetings may appear as the backbone of businesses, but there is so much your team can achieve when you slice down the frequencies of these meetings. At Flawless Content Shop, we have been able to up our monthly output by 175 percent by keeping some days entirely meeting-free."

Felix said having a full day without meetings allows his team to build incredible momentum. "This way, my staff can get fully enveloped in their daily to-do lists," he said.

Give your team flexibility, across the board. Felix strives not to "drown staffers in overbearing professionalism.

"For example, we don't have a strict dress code," he noted. "Personally, I have gone to the office in slippers. I wear ripped jeans on casual days, and most Fridays I Rollerblade to work."

Felix said he views this as "a deliberate attempt to unshackle my small team, giving them more vacuum for creative expression."

Measure performance and value. Focus on how your workplace team adds value using three measures: how they help make money, save money or reduce your company's risk.

"Keep track of your team's accomplishments and, as much as possible, determine the return on investment for your smaller team's contributions to the company," said Terry McDougall, owner of Terry B. McDougall Coaching, in Highland Park, Ill. "When you can demonstrate a positive return on investment, this is generally when C-suite leaders feel confident that increased investment in your team will result in a greater return for the company."

Let go of bad performers. Above all else, don't let underperforming team members stick around, because total team performance can suffer.

"With smaller teams, one bad apple can really destroy the culture of a team," Solomon said. "Believing that you can overlook one underperforming or difficult member of the team may be the biggest mistake managers make in running small teams."

In his book, Game Changer, Solomon talks about workers with a "sabotage impulse" who "avoid responsibility for their own actions and are very quick to blame others. No one is eager to have them around because they never feel safe with someone around ready to blame others for their own mistakes."

Too often, team leaders overlook these behaviors in hopes that the worker will rectify his or her behavior.

"In reality, these types of individuals … can be incredibly destructive for small workplace teams," Solomon said. "It's very important to remove them quickly to avoid an adverse impact on the rest of the team."

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth and The Career Survival Guide.

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