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Why Small, Focused Teams are Best

I’ve worked on many different projects and in many different team structures in my ten years building custom software for clients. There are many reasons why a team can succeed or fail — skill sets, lack of discipline, lack of code quality, ill-suited methodologies and more. When Highland proposes work to a prospective client, questions on these topics are regularly asked and answered.

Yet I find that one of the most critical indicators of success is often overlooked at this stage: Are the team members completely focused on this project or product?

It is true that a team doing multiple things can seem attractive. First, since the team isn’t focused on one thing, the cost of the team can be shared with another project. Second, there isn’t an obvious cost to moving slowly since the team can, in theory, do something else while idling. And finally, you can dip into a broader range of skills from “partial” team members for a small amount of time.

These are real advantages. Yet they come at a steep cost. Here are four reasons why you should always ask your development team — internal or external — if you have their full attention:

1. Get more done for the effort

Research shows us that multi-tasking people are not effective. The “cost of switching” is real and trades progress for busy-ness.

Multi-tasking teams are like multi-tasking people times 100. Good teams measure “work in progress” to count all the things a team member or team is working on at one time. When work in progress increases the speed of delivery goes down. That lower yield for hours invested isn’t just coming out of the other projects, it is coming out of your project.

2. Get “shower time” for free

While the cost of a project is usually tied to the 9-to-5 time that team members spend discussing, designing and developing, the creative process is not directly tied to those hours. Writing custom software is not that dissimilar from creative writing: it’s the thinking that matters. Writing, like coding, is the output of the creative process.

Team members on a focused team often spend their shower time in the morning thinking about their project, as well as dozens of other little “open” times during the week. This time is priceless. Insights and creative breakthroughs are disproportionately tied to the times when minds wander and new connections are made.

3. Make team dynamics visible

Team dynamics are still dangerously undervalued. Google’s research into high performing teams reaffirmed a truth that is common knowledge but not common practice: teams that are most successful in their work exhibit high levels of emotional and psychological safety. In fact, team dynamics are a stronger indicator of overall team performance than individual skill.

Even if the team hasn’t worked together before, a focused team will move through the typical stages of team formation (forming, storming, norming, performing) faster, and any unhealthy team dynamics will surface faster as well. Partial teams tend to establish weak norms and to put up with unhealthy team dynamics, since they don’t work with the intensity of dedicated teams.

4. Avoid magical thinking

In partial teams, time, investment, and progress are not tightly linked. When a team isn’t giving its full effort to the work, it is easy to imagine that if and when the time comes to “buckle down”, the team can focus and make remarkable progress to bring the project home.

Many a project manager and project sponsor have wrecked themselves on the shores of magical thinking. Focused teams establish predictable projections around progress and expected milestones, and that progress is tightly linked to both time and investment. Not only does this prevent magical thinking, it naturally forces product owners and project sponsors to prioritize the next most important thing each step along the way.

What to do?

Every project at Highland begins with Collaborative Chartering, which includes “Mapping the Project Community”: asking each person involved with the project to chart the percent of their work time allocated to the project.

I would strongly recommend this practice. Ideally you want to see a core group between 90% and 100%. I admit this can be hard. Even as a project-focused consulting firm, the temptation to multi-task a person or a team is strong. But I’ve seen a huge difference in impact from focused teams, and it’s worth the effort.

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