5 Reasons to Keep Teams Small

5 Reasons to Keep Teams Small

There is a lot of hype about building creative teams. Teams should be filled with oddballs and wanderers. They should be given permission to play and to fail (or iterate, depending on who is writing). Bring in philosophers and engineers, writers and office managers. The more diverse the points of view, the better. These articles share one common characteristic, and it isn’t insight. They are like the written version of candy. Sweet and easily digestible but essentially empty.

When I read the articles I feel like they are written by people who have very little experience with teamwork. They seem to be tourists in the land of the creative team. The writers barely skim the surface of what it means to be creative and part of a creative team.

I’ve been working in teams most of my life now. At times it’s been difficult, disappointing, frustrating, and exciting. Coming up with an idea has never been the difficult part. Even people who do not think of themselves as creative can often come up with great ideas. Ideas are a commodity for any creative team. It’s making those ideas better and the hard work of making them take shape that’s difficult.

Nearly every problem we face is a problem that can benefit from design practices. Especially when those design practices are human-centered. It’s important about the people involved in the problem. This means the people who cause it and who are affected by it. Bringing some human-centered design practices into problem solving can help in situations not normally thought of as being or needing design.

tweet thisTeams of two have super powers. Given the right support, a small team can get work done quickly and efficiently. Think of how hard it is to make decisions about dinner or a movie with a group of people. Now imagine how much more effective a team of two can be at solving problems?

Teams of two have superpowers

1. It takes two to tango. My experience shows that the best teams are small — teams of two, in fact. Any larger and you need a project manager.

2. Survival of the loudest. Research shows that teams are most likely to follow the first one to speak — the extrovert, the bossiest, the most (over) confident. This has certainly been my experience with teamwork over the years and accounts for the multiple ways in which it’s been a failure. Small teams solve this issue by allowing different types of personalities to lead. Even quiet people can have a voice when the team is small.

3. Shared leadership makes for a productive team. In a team of two leadership is shared. Ideas are shaped and reworked in a truly collaborative and exciting manner. The team of two has room for reflection, introversion, and iteration. I learned this working at Cooper in the late 1990s.

4. Teams of two have super powers. Given the right support, a small team can get work done quickly and efficiently. Think of how hard it is to make decisions about dinner or a movie with a group of people. Now imagine how much more effective a team of two can be at solving problems?

5. Successful multitasking is a myth. I think we all know what happens when we multitask. Nothing gets full attention. Living in a world filled with stimuli makes that painfully obvious. Team members should be allowed to focus on their work, one problem at a time. And I don’t need to tell you to close Facebook, do I?

The Yin and Yang of a good creative team

1. A good creative team needs two types of people. One should be good at generating ideas and the other should be good at building on them. At least one member of the team needs to be empathetic — able to embody other people. One should be a good writer. The other should be good at visualization. At least one needs to understand what’s possible and have a handle on the limitations.

2. Both team members need to be able to listen.

3. They need to be people who love puzzles. People who can see and understand the outlier. People who can anticipate the future.

4. Both team members should be capable of creating mental models. This means envisioning the whole problem and using that vision to find solutions and hidden connections. I often tell people to practice creating mental models on something they already know well: their bedroom, their motorcycle, their neighborhood. One team member may be better than the other, but both should have an idea of what the whole problem looks like.

Support your teams

To be really successful, the team should be embedded in a supportive organization with other teams working on similar and different problems. That way when they hit a snag, they can grab others to help them untangle it. They shouldn’t be alone.

They need administrative support. They need the help of others who can make appointments, smooth ruffled feathers, proofread, and other essential tasks. The team shouldn’t be expected to do it all — even though they often are.

You can’t do it alone

People need to know their concerns are being heard and understood by the team.There are times to bring in larger groups. The team needs the support of people who will make their ideas real. Those people should be brought in regularly to increase buy-in. You can’t leave them out and expect the work to succeed on its own merit. This means making sure that there is good communication and lots of updates.

The idea needs to become real. Its value may be clear to you and your teammate, but it still needs to be sold to the others. You’ll be most successful if you ask for help at key moments. By doing so, you give others outside the team a sense of ownership. They can and will bring ideas that are useful. They may have key insights that will surprise you.

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