There are many great reasons to love managing a small project team. For starters, your projects are generally shorter in duration and less complex, which means you have a better chance to make an impact. In addition, communication and team-building often improve when you’re working with a small-knit team because there are fewer people to oversee and coordinate.
Still, there are a number of distinct challenges that are unique to small project teams. It helps to keep these issues in mind and come up with creative solutions when you’re leading and negotiating project work. Here’s a look at five common challenges, and how to solve them.
1. There are fewer specialized roles.
Smaller project teams tend to have a broader level of skills in order to cover multiple functions. For instance, you might not have a dedicated tester, so this role falls to the people who are creating the product. You also might be missing a dedicated business analyst looking after the requirements, a solutions architect or a configuration manager.
Whereas these broader skill levels and overlapping roles create a high level of variety and growth opportunity for those working on the team, it also represents a unique challenge. When the depth of knowledge is lacking, the team becomes dependent on outside specialists for information.
In some cases, if a specialist isn’t called in, the project may be compromised. Imagine the difference, for instance, between working with a specialized business analyst who is trained and skilled at extracting user requirements, prioritizing them and documenting them, compared to someone who is doing it simply because they have to fill a gap.
Be upfront about where specialist skills and knowledge may be missing and either create a training plan or, pair team members up with a hands-on mentor or a go-to person from another team. In addition, those responsible for recruiting members to a small team should specifically look for people who are comfortable taking on multiple roles and who will be more forgiving working in a team with few or no specialists.
2. The project manager is more exposed.
Let’s turn our attention to the project manager for a moment. It’s not uncommon for a PM on a small project team to feel stretched and challenged due to the many roles required to perform the job. For example, the project manager might have to cover procurement, vendor negotiation, and contract management even if it’s not their strength. Business analysis and requirements gathering is another area that they may have to cover.
What’s particularly stressful about these roles is that they’ll expose a project manager who isn’t a particularly strong subject matter expert and who doesn’t understand the client’s business in depth. On a larger team, there are more people to draw on, but on a small team, subject matter expertise often falls on the project manager.
To overcome this challenge, the PM must be briefed about the client’s situation and learn as much as possible about the subject matter before the project kicks off.
Having said that, it’s never possible to be 100 percent “ready.” A certain amount of learning will always take place during the project. The best homework for the PM may, therefore, be to prepare mentally for the challenge and to acknowledge that the real learning happens when we move outside of our comfort zone and that it’s OK not to know everything.
3. The project manager has no one to delegate to.
To add to the previous challenge, the project manager of a small team is unlikely to have anyone to delegate to. This means that it falls to the PM to also carry out project administration, including writing up meeting minutes, checking time sheets, managing documentation and compiling progress reports.
This can lead to overwhelm and disillusion, especially when the project manager is also a team member with specific responsibilities for producing content. On many smaller teams, there may even be a lack of understanding and appreciation for the project manager role with very little effort set aside for it.
Be realistic from the outset regarding how many roles your project manager can credibly take on. Have an honest look at all the work items and duties, and ensure that sufficient time is set aside and prioritized. In addition, encourage your PM to have an open and honest conversation with you if they feel that their workload is becoming unmanageable.
Finally, why not ask your boss for some part-time project support? It can end up making all the difference and help the project manager to avoid overwhelm.
4. Senior management gives you less attention.
One of the unfortunate disadvantages of small project teams is that because they tend to work on smaller projects, they may often be less of a priority for senior management.
The bigger projects tend to get all the attention because more is at stake. While it could be seen as a positive that senior management isn’t breathing down the neck of your team, it becomes a challenge when you need a quick decision from a stakeholder or some executive direction, and no one’s responding.
Project success is highly dependent on the project team having the backing of an engaged sponsor and a well-functioning steering committee, so it’s important that this challenge is addressed head on.
You, along with your project manager, can do this by having a frank discussion at the first steering committee meeting, and come to an agreement on how much attention and support the team needs throughout the project’s lifecycle. It’s important that your small project team doesn’t take up more of senior management’s time than absolutely necessary. Steering committee meetings could be limited to 30 minutes.
5. Resources and morale suffer.
If you’re managing a small team that’s working on a lower priority project, you’ll notice the effects when resources become tight. If another bigger project is running into trouble and needs more people, team members could be taken from your project, and stifle its progress.
This resource challenge—and the fact that the team is often perceived as being less important—can have a negative impact on team morale. No one likes to work on a project that isn’t seen as important. Most people prefer to work on the big snazzy projects with a big budget and a big business case. It builds their skill set and resume, and makes them feel more important.
Spend time creating a strong cohesive team and ask for its members to be ring-fenced where at all possible. When a strong team spirit is created, people will enjoy coming to work, be more engaged and contribute their best effort to the project.
Also, continue to highlight the importance of the project and remind the team and senior management of the project’s benefits so that resources aren’t taken from it. Smaller teams also have a purpose, but at times team members and stakeholders need to be reminded of it.
In summary, small teams have many advantages, but also some unique challenges. The biggest challenges relate to lack of subject matter expertise and specialization within the team, fewer people to delegate to, lack of attention from senior management and the risk of low morale as the project may be less critical and hold a lower budget.
If you know what to expect and how to navigate these situations your team will thrive and do great work!
Learn more about how to clear your project management hurdles and master in your industry! Download our eBook How to Solve the Top 9 Project Management Challenges.
Susanne Madsen is a Project Management Leadership Coach, and author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook (2012) and The Power of Project Leadership (2015). She is a PRINCE2 and MSP Practitioner and a qualified Corporate and Executive Coach. Susanne is a member of the Association of Project Management (APM) and has over 17 years’ experience in leading large change programs for the financial sector. You can visit Susanne’s website at http://www.susannemadsen.com and follow her on Twitter: @SusanneMadsen.