The incredible shrinking team



Whether it's by design or default, not every project comes with a grand vision, a healthy budget and a nice, big team. And with the global economy in decline, lean teams are simply a fact of life.

The prospect of working with a small team might make some project managers shudder. But Greg Vukasovic, PMP, actually relishes the thought.

“People admire lean teams, they look positively on it. When people see a lean team, they see people who must, by definition, be working hard and being productive,” says Mr. Vukasovic, a principal at Moorhouse Consulting, London, England. “Conversely, these days most organizations have slimmed down so much that if a project is not lean, or has some extra resources, that gets people griping.”

Indeed, project managers may even find there are some hidden benefits to lean teams.


Randy Bennett, PMP, saw the project management office at Fiserv cut from nine to six because of the downturn. And that meant a new approach to projects at the Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, USA business unit he is a part of.

Team members have to have a willingness to work on something they've not done before. They'll do something outside of their domain because of a resource crunch.


“We're having to narrow down the scope of what we do,” says Mr. Bennett, a senior project manager at the company. “We're really having to cut back on things that might be important to us, but are not critical to getting the project completed.”

But Fiserv also is taking advantage of the opportunity to try out new tools and techniques. Mr. Bennett recently took a course on Agile project management, for example, and the company has initiated a pilot project putting the techniques into use.

Heralded by many as a miracle cure to software development woes, Agile methods break projects into small chunks. Fully functional, fully tested pieces of code are then delivered on an iterative basis. Because the customer approves each functional increment, the end-product is presumably one that will better meet user needs.

Although they've been around a while, Agile methods are gaining popularity as more organizations look to increase efficiencies while reducing costs and speeding time to market. But project teams must be prepared. The technique requires a deliberate focus on customer value and solid collaboration.

“It's not huge armies of people working separately and then trying to communicate across several layers of management,” says Sanjiv Augustine, president of LitheSpeed, a training, consulting and coaching firm in Annandale, Virginia, USA. People tend to think of software developers as “lone wolf programmers working in the basement, but that doesn't have any place on an Agile team.”

Given the limited resources on hand, members of small teams need to be willing to step out of their individual roles and help during the whole life cycle of the project, says Roland Cuellar, LitheSpeed's vice president.

Khalid Ahmad Khan, PMP, CEO of Expert Systems Ltd. in Lahore, Pakistan, knows something about broadening team roles after a recent project to update the electoral rolls in his country. Information on 80 million people had to be entered into a database within a year. But the project only had a management team of 16—half the number used on similar projects implemented a couple of years before.

During that first project, team members were organized by functional roles—the planning engineer prepared schedules, for example. For the new project, people had multiple roles. The planning engineer took on additional responsibilities supervising parts of the data-entry facility and analyzing data from the production floor.

Team members have to have a “willingness to work on something they've not done before,” Mr. Khan says. “They'll do something outside of their domain because of a resource crunch.”

And in this case, the decision to go lean wasn't tied to money.


When it comes to project management in the current economic downturn, “prioritizing” is the new buzzword.

In the past, “every project that came through the funnel that sounded sexy was approved,” says Ravi Sahi, PMP, Singapore-based director of client solutions for ESI International, Asia.

But there's a whole new attitude these days. “I think a lot of companies will be reprioritizing all their growth-related projects,” he says.

A number of firms in Singapore and Hong Kong have been hit with hiring freezes recently, limiting most projects in the pipeline to IT, information systems and new product development, Mr. Sahi says.

The “you can't have it all” trend has also hit the United States, says Patrick McCauley, practice leader for the Los Angeles, California, USA location of Point B, a management consulting and project leadership firm.

“Clients are having to prioritize more than ever in terms of what they want to get done,” he says. And over the past six months, Point B employees have led smaller teams working together for shorter lengths of time. Rather than projects running six months to a year, they now last for three or four months.

These days, “if you can't get the right internal resources, then you're not on the most important project or you're not influential enough,” Mr. McCauley says.

In past downturns, senior management tended to make dramatic project cuts, says Greg Vukasovic, PMP, Moorhouse Consulting. But when business picked up, they found themselves behind the curve. In the current slowdown, executives need to continue to look at not only the present, but also the medium and long term. That can be covered with a range of strategies, such as a SWOT analysis to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that can impact projects going forward.

Clive Jenkins, field support manager at Exigen Services in London, England, says he expects organizations to place a special emphasis on IT and business re-engineering projects as companies focus on business value.

Executives and project managers will need to break tasks down and determine the business value for each item, rather than simply looking at the ROI for the project as a whole. “There's a more holistic, end-to-end view of the whole project,” he says.

“The project was going to run for just over a year, and it had a lot of front-loaded activities,” he says. “A large team is more difficult to hire and to get properly organized. So the benefit of a smaller team is tilted more towards efficiency as opposed to finances. With a more skilled team the salaries [are] typically higher for the individuals, so finance was not the consideration.”


One obvious—but big—advantage of managing lean teams is it's easier to communicate with five or six people versus 50 or 60. At Lombardi Software in Austin, Texas, USA, Bob Tarne, PMP, senior business process management program manager, meets daily with his staff members to discuss what they accomplished the day before and what they plan to do that day.


Project managers can never predict when senior executives will take a hatchet, rather than a scalpel, to their project budgets.

If that occurs, project managers need to “make sure to scale back the project to the degree [they] can in order to deliver,” recommends Bob Tarne, PMP, Lombardi Software. That could mean cutting back on unnecessary documentation, or, if a project team shrinks, managers will have to look at delivering only the high-priority items.

Another option is combining teams. If there are two teams with four people each, it might be time to roll the teams together, complete the project with the highest business value, and then tackle the second project, suggests Clive Jenkins, field support manager for Exigen Services in London, England.

Project managers should also be prepared to reassess a project. If resources are cut, they need to take a realistic look at the impact on time and scope. Although upper management will have the ultimate say, project managers should be proactive and provide sound recommendations when they outline the effects resource cuts have on schedules and features to executives, says consultant Loreen Ozolins, PMP.

“We can get through a meeting in 15 minutes,” he says. “It keeps everybody on the same page, and they don't spend an hour or two hours per week in a meeting that might or might not be productive for everybody.”

Each team member also interacts directly with the customer and it's “not filtered through a business analyst,” Mr. Tarne says. Decision-making is also faster because with a smaller bureaucracy, communication is more direct. Someone can walk into the customer's office, ask a couple of questions and make a call on the spot.


Going lean inevitably requires project managers to extend more responsibility to team members. And project managers have to find ways to let team members know, “we trust you,” says Sandra Mereos Crosswell, a technical project manager at IT giant HP in Keller, Texas, USA.

Once a task has been delegated, the project manager should direct all queries to the person charged with those duties, rather than jumping in and taking control.

Team members should also be left to handle tasks in their style—rather than having one imposed on them, says Ms. Mereos Crosswell.

That may take some getting used to for team members accustomed to working on large projects where they don't have as much free reign.

In that and other ways, lean teams do require some special care.

Because team members often end up doing more work and a variety of things outside their comfort zone, Ms. Mereos Crosswell makes it a point to recognize their efforts at group meetings. She also provides feedback in annual reports to the team members’ managers.

It's just as important to weed out people who aren't up to the task.

Slackers and naysayers, for example, can have an oversized impact because they have a larger percentage of responsibility, says Loreen Ozolins, PMP, a freelance consultant and trainer in Europe, Asia and New Zealand. “I‘d trade an experienced person with a bad attitude for a less experienced person with a good attitude,” she says.

And project managers need to set the right tone early, Ms. Ozolins says. At the beginning of a project, have a kickoff meeting to get all the core team members involved in planning by identifying what activities they will take responsibility for and any additional items they can do to help the team meet its objectives.

“It helps empower them to do more than normal,” she says. “There's nothing more motivating than a shared goal and then empowering a small team to work against all odds to make things happen.” PM





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