Friday, July 15, 2011

Big Teams are not Small Teams

This is a continuation of the Moving Quickly In The Dark series. I know the title seems blatantly obvious. But in reality, this is a commonly forgotten axiom and the success of an engagement often hinges on whether the behaviors demonstrated are in alignment with the size of the team.

If you are on a big team that is operating like a small team, you have probably noticed more chaotic behavior or felt a sense of isolation at one time or another. Ever have that feeling like you don't know what all those other people on your project are doing? Maybe spending a lot of time in meetings that aren't relevant to getting your job done? Then getting blindsided by changes because of decisions in meetings that happened without you, but actually impact your job? These are signs you are on a big team that's pretending to be a small team.

If you are ever on a project and someone says "We're all staying late and we're just going to get it done." or "That'll only take 10 minutes, can't we just do it?" you should recognize a person who thinks they are on small team. If the team is large, that person is probably going to make things much worse before they make anything better.

Small teams. . .
. . . can have clear objectives.
. . . can have lower cost of communications.
. . . can change direction more quickly, with less effort.
. . . can share responsibility among team members more easily.
When what is being done requires multiple teams, the objectives are the teams are rarely aligned. For example, the marketing department has a goal to attract consumers while the finance department has a goal to contain spending. These are clearly competing goals. Balancing them takes work. This is an extremely influential reason that you need to manage big teams differently than small teams.

With small teams the communication is generally so chatty (read: high frequency) that the relevance of the communication becomes the same for all members. For example, when the entire team sits in the same room it is easy to ensure everyone knows about a big win or a big challenge. If they're in two cities (or on two different continents!) a little more logistics is required. You begin to count the cost of the phone calls or time it takes to write lengthy, detailed emails.

Even with small teams of specialists where the relevance of all the information to all members might actually be low, the interfacing cost is generally also low because of the frequency.
[subtext] Assuming that every contributor on a project needs to know the all same information as every other contributor, demonstrates small team behavior.
This low cost to communicate means getting and keeping everyone on the same page, or even changing the page for all team members should not require significant effort. Having clear objectives supported by high frequency, low cost communications is the key to having a nimble team regardless of size. Because smaller teams generally have these "nimble" attributes it becomes possible for team members to share responsibility for meeting the objectives of the group.

When the objectives need to be balanced, the communications cost is high, or the frequency of communication is low, the team becomes less nimble. This lowers the likelihood that team members can share responsibility for meeting objectives without formal process and controls. You wouldn't want the marketing department to have unrestricted access to budget, wouldn't you? For the same reason the quality assurance team is often separate from the solution team.
[subtext] Assuming that information on Activities or process is reactively sought out, instead of proactively published, demonstrates big team behavior.
The less nimble the team is, regardless of actual size, the more process is needed. We need process because it keeps other teams and team members in the loop on the changes we are making when those changes impact them. A good process should allow for collaboration and control while allowing the team members to contribute to the objectives in their own way.
[subtext] Reserving communications for impactful changes, demonstrates big team behavior.
When you implement controls ineffectively, we call this Bureaucracy. When you do it effectively, is called Adaptive *wink*. The effectiveness of a process translates into nimbleness and is a function of how much priority you place on communicating at the connection points (or interfaces) between team members.

The reason Adaptive methodologies can be so powerful is because they focus attention away from the internal processes of the different groups and onto the interfaces between the groups. For example, Adaptive encourages the implementer of a system to simply ask of the business, "What do you want to accomplish, right now?" This is instead of trying to learn the intricacies of the business and translate from their own understanding of the business. Adaptive encourages the users of the system to evaluate "What do I need the system to do? Does it do that?" This is instead of trying to understand how the system does what it does or what is needed to implement the system. The focus is on how the teams connect to create a solution, not how each team functions internally.
[subtext] Adaptive is a good choice when the information gap between two groups is large and the schedule is constrained.
How you fix a big team that is acting like a small team is another post entirely. Hopefully this will help you identify situations when you are on a big team acting like a small team. Or perhaps the opposite.