Bigger isn't always better




Fabrizio Rossi, Schal, London, England


Alegent Health might have set a new speed record. In just seven weeks, a project team prepared five Alegent hospitals in the Midwestern United States to receive accreditation from the Society of Chest Pain Centers. Altogether, the team pulled together responses to 775 criteria for each of the facilities.

And they did it using an average of 10 team members at each hospital.

Using a small team to run a major project might seem like a challenge at best and a nightmare at worst. The idea of trying to rally teams with too few members and too many demands can understandably set off feelings of trepidation.

But there are some clear benefits, including streamlined communications and procedures as well as increased flexibility. And all of that can help speed small project teams along.

“I don't think we could have mobilized and moved as quickly if the team had been bigger,” says Myra Ricceri, PMP, business imperative project manager at the Omaha, Nebraska, USA-based company.

Small teams can also foster a sense of camaraderie and a shared passion for the project, reducing the chance for naysaying and increasing team cooperation. At each of the hospitals, the team would set aside 15 to 30 minutes at the end of every weekly session to discuss problems, questions or ideas that arose. If someone got pulled off track or their work was delayed, others would pitch in. “Our arms were linked and we were going forward,” Ms. Ricceri says.


Although small teams may long for more resources or think the arrangement hinders their progress, “dwelling on what they don't have will only slow them down,” says Gayle Lantz, president of WorkMatters Inc., an organizational development consulting firm in Birmingham, Alabama, USA.

Instead of angling for more resources, project managers should focus on securing the right people with the right skills for their team, she says.

The types of projects run with small teams are nearly as diverse as the organizations themselves. But the people best suited for duty on small teams tend to be natural leaders who think strategically rather than focusing on the nitty-gritty technical details, Ms. Lantz says.

The Right Personality

The first thing Eric Morfin, Ph.D., PMP, does when he starts a project is give team members a personality test he created. The 34-question survey is designed to reveal whether a person's style is bold, expressive, sensitive or technical.

In the case of a small team, if no one scores strongly as bold or technical, “I'm very concerned,” says Dr. Morfin, Critical Skills Inc.

So what makes these types of people a good fit for small teams? A bold person is “naturally driven by the crisis situation. They're the ideal person to get the job done,” he says.

A “technical” person is driven by perfection. That can sometimes be a drag on the team, but if managed properly, they can be very helpful for attaining goals, Dr. Morfin says.

Meanwhile, an expressive or a sensitive person can slow things down on a small team. Sensitive types are hesitant to make any decision that might sabotage their highly prized relationships, he explains. And expressive types can hamper a small team's progress if they're asked to take on tasks they don't like. Both are better suited for large teams.



If you're trying to make the case for adding more people to the team, go in prepared.

Have a detailed proposal of what's needed, says Peyman Zamani, Office Depot. It might result in someone being loaned to the team for a few weeks or extra funding if the project sponsor wants to get it done, he says.

It's particularly important for members of small teams not to follow rigid roles, says Peyman Zamani, director of application development at Office Depot, Trumbull, Connecticut, USA. There usually just aren't enough bodies to assign people to only one specific task. Team members need to be willing to jump in and take the initiative if needed—even if it's not their direct responsibility.

Small teams also may not necessarily follow and execute conventional project management procedures if they want to achieve results with the limited resources at hand, Mr. Zamani says.

Generally, project managers might cut down on some of the detailed planning and focus their attention on the tasks deemed most important. Small teams can also often eliminate some of the processes, procedures and structures required with large teams. If an issue arises, for example, project managers can probably forego complicated escalation procedures and hash it out directly and quickly with the people involved.

The best candidates for small teams are flexible generalists who can make things happen in their own way, says Stephen Webb, PMP, a principal with Moorhouse Consulting in London, England. They can “work out how to get from A to B,” and the interim steps are less important than achieving the end-result, he adds.

So how do companies find these people?

37 signals specifically seeks out applicants accustomed to being on their own, says Jason Fried, president of the Chicago, Illinois, USA-based software development company.

The company's programmers typically come from the open-source world, where potentially thousands of people from around the globe voluntarily collaborate on projects. For designers, Mr. Fried tries to recruit people who could run their own freelancing or consulting business. In both cases, the candidates are “self-motivated enough to run their own ship.”


It's not unusual for those tackling a big project with a small team to tap into outside experts and consultants.

At Associated Brownfields in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, team size goes up and down as needed. The company purchases and cleans up contaminated industrial sites for redevelopment. For the half-dozen or so projects it might have on tap, the company typically uses its own project manager and technical expert, and then brings in third-party consultants, planners and engineers when work requires. Relying on outside experts, “gives us the ability to expand and contract easily,” says Tony DiFruscio, president of Associated Brownfields.

But calling in outside help can prove challenging in its own right.

Fabrizio Rossi was responsible for master planning, overseeing planning applications and monitoring construction for the Beam Reach 5 Business Park in London, England. The project was part of a redevelopment initiative along the River Thames in 2007. The site had previously been owned by Ford Motor Co. and was contaminated. Light and general manufacturing are planned for the location, but first the team had to tackle issues such as the potential for the river to flood and the need to protect the site's biodiversity.

Small Talk

So what happens if your small team is scattered around the globe? With today's technology, it's still a small world.

“We're convinced that the future of project delivery is small, distributed teams,” says Mike Coyle, cofounder of Botonomy LLC, a technology company based in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, USA.

With tools like instant messaging, wikis, and audio and video conferencing, “it doesn't matter if people are down the hall or around the world,” he says. And although small teams still have to contend with time-zone differences, it's a lot easier to pull a handful of scattered people together for a conference call than trying to coordinate the schedules of 20 or 30.

It also helps to have virtual teams gather together when the project begins so people can learn a bit about each other, and make sure they're in agreement on goals and responsibilities, says Kimberly Wiefling, author of Scrappy Project Management: The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces [Happy About, 2007] and founder of Wiefling Consulting, Redwood City, California, USA.

That too is easier and less costly to do when an organization has to fly a few people to a kickoff meeting, rather than dozens.

Ms. Wiefling sees a team of eight to 12 people being the optimal size when it comes to communication. “Once a team gets above a dozen, communication is just too demanding,” she says.

Small has advantages.

Too small clearly drives projects into some difficult periods.


With only six people, “it wasn't a big team for a complicated site,” especially considering the high visibility of the project, says Mr. Rossi, a senior project manager at the project and construction management company Schal in London.

Mr. Rossi drew together a team of consultants to deal with flood-risk assessment, ecology, master planning, renewable energy, utilities and transportation.

Bringing in outsiders was necessary to get the job done, but there were some issues, he says. Because it wasn't a fulltime job for the other team members, they didn't feel the same pressure to meet deadlines. If they didn't have enough time to do what was required, sometimes they wouldn't deliver.

Despite the challenges, Mr. Rossi says one advantage of working with a small team was the communication. The team would get together at least every couple of weeks and you could “really talk one-on-one.”

Small teams also have the advantage of being more naturally collaborative, Ms. Lantz says. They're more nimble, too, and can quickly shift gears if something needs to change.

When Graham Daley, PMP, joined ViDeOnline in 2005, the Hong Kong-based company was gearing up to provide video-on-demand service. Several prototypes had been developed, and it was time for the company to come up with the real deal. But each of the six engineers had been focused solely on his or her own mini-project. They “urgently needed to be transformed into a team focused on one goal,” Mr. Daley recalls.

To pull them together, he began holding short daily meetings to discuss what had been completed the previous day, what was on tap for the coming one and any obstacles. Team members were made accountable to the group as a whole, rather than to Mr. Daley as the project manager. Charts were drawn up to help focus on the work that needed to be done before launch. Immediately, the company saw progress on the tasks at hand, which helped get the project off the ground.


There are, of course, limits to how much even the most talented of small teams can accomplish. Operating with limited resources makes burnout an obvious risk, so Mr. Zamani says he makes sure projects with small teams only last three to six months.

And sometimes teams can simply be too small, says Eric Morfin, Ph.D., PMP, a partner in the consultancy Critical Skills Inc., San Diego, California, USA. He also serves as chair of the PMI Pharmaceutical and New Product Development Specific Interest Groups.

Having worked with biotechnology firms short on financing and manpower, Dr. Morfin says he has seen the pressure small teams are forced to work under. Often, if they don't get the work done on time, they'll lose venture capitalist funding. So, “if this project has any chance of success, people have to work even harder,” Dr. Morfin says.

“Small has advantages,” he says. “Too small clearly drives projects into some difficult periods.”

Sometimes, a small team has to know when to act its size. PM





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