Small But Mighty: Turn Your Small Team into a Tactical Force

by Daniel Hannig

Greater flexibility. Fewer resources. Faster training. Tighter schedules. Small teams allow for a more direct, personal approach to accomplishing goals. However, the benefits come packaged together with their own unique set of challenges. Today we’re taking a look at the various advantages and disadvantages of small teams, and what it takes to lead one effectively.

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History is packed with stories of small teams beating the odds. While his legacy might be a little tarnished now, Napoleon rose to greatness by pioneering military tactics–now collectively known as “maneuver warfare”–to lead relatively small armies to victory against much larger, more powerful foes. His techniques and advantages might sound familiar to those with experience working in larger, more bureaucratic companies. He knew from experience that large armies moved more slowly due to their numbers and heavier artillery, and required a “tail” of personnel relaying materials from bases up to their main fighting force. By training his own forces march quickly and live off the land, Napoleon’s forces could be nimble and easily outmaneuver their enemies. Two hundred years later, these same strategic advantages can apply to your small team. By maximizing your ability to change direction quickly and operate without the logistical restrictions of your competition, your team’s size will work to your advantage. The first requirement to make it work? A strong, creative leader.

“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” – Andrew Carnegie

Leading a smaller squad isn’t always easy. There’s certainly strength in numbers, so it would be misguided to not recognize the downsides of a more compact team from the beginning. Less manpower, for one, means smaller teams generally have fewer experts. While small teams can cope remarkably well with large assignments by attacking them aggressively, be forewarned that an abundance of smaller problems can often have a tendency to snowball. And the quality of your team’s talent is just as important as its size: one low-performer could account for 10 percent of your team.

But before you assemble your A-team, there are a few valuable lessons that you should keep in mind.

Setting your small team up for success:

Define your purpose

It’s important to remember that, while your small team may not be equipped to handle the large-scale operations of your competitors, your strengths lie in its speed, flexibility, and attention to detail. Whether your small team is your whole company or just a temporary task force, it’s important to begin by stating your intentions. It sounds obvious, but a hallmark of successful small teams is their single-minded sense of purpose.

Decide on your core values, and stick to them

If you’re part of a larger organization, it’s easy to adopt your parent company’s core values. If you’re starting from scratch, however, be sure to take the time to develop your own. These will inform your group and guide your leadership much more than you might think, so they’re worth the extra effort.

When it comes to hiring, measure twice and cut once.

Now that you’ve defined your purpose and established your core values, utilize both in your hiring process, or when assigning employees to your new team. For instance, in a small squad, multitalented people are necessary to overcome that lack of experts we mentioned earlier. And just as importantly, your team’s size means that each member will have to assume a large amount of responsibility. Be sure that everyone embodies all of your core values so that you can trust every individual in your team to deliver outstanding quality in their tasks.

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” – Henry Ford

Your responsibilities as the leader of a small team:

Be present

A small team is only as strong as its connection to its leader. Your number one responsibility is to always be available to answer your squad’s questions and solve problems when members get stuck. Over time, your team will know you’ve got their back, building both their morale and their sense of loyalty.

Minimize updates with regular meetings

In a small team, with proper updates, one great manager can make effective strategy changes on the fly. But just as with a team of any size, leaders should beware of oversharing. Your strength here is your ability to have consistent face time with your team, so use it to decrease their paperwork. Instead of the same status spreadsheets and “updates about updates” required by larger teams, just hold more frequent all-hands meetings to stay in touch with everyone’s progress. Each team member can take a turn updating the group on their work and answering questions, so you can all move onward with renewed purpose.

Don’t be the star of the show.

You handpicked your team members, so allow them to show off their abilities. Avoid micromanaging at all costs. Flatten the hierarchy and encourage employees to give each other advice, without the influence of your expertise. By handing your team their objectives and getting out of the way, you’ll grow their camaraderie, build their confidence, and give yourself the occasional much-needed break.

Tips for ongoing success:

Communicate freely.

Your team’s strength lies in its size, so minimize the sporadic communication of interoffice emails altogether and instead embrace a more informal messaging tool like Slack. Being able to communicate quickly and easily with one another will allow your team members to avoid stopping and starting tasks as they wait for a response.

Prepare for the worst.

Establish a set of concrete plans for conflict resolution early on in the life of your team, and don’t be afraid to fall back on them as often as necessary. Remember that your team hinges on its cohesiveness, so it’s important to nip problems in the bud as soon as they arise. Working in such close proximity can make people testy sometimes, but keeping everyone focused and reminding them of the team’s purpose will help to avoid blow-ups.

Invest in engagement.

Smaller teams have the advantage of fitting into one office, allowing for a personal approach for every team member. Use this to your advantage by surveying your team and responding to their individual requests to create their ideal office environment. Whether it’s something as simple as ergonomic chairs and standing desks, or a meditation room and an in-office gym, take the time to play around with your office design. Every improvement is an investment in employee engagement. But don’t stop there! Game rooms and a stocked fridge may be great motivators, but effective office design is only one small ingredient in your recipe for engagement. Especially for a small team, strong investment in engagement is key to keeping your staff on a productive path. So, from frequent recognition to a great suite of benefits, never stop building and growing your culture to ensure continued engagement on the part of your employees going forward.

“Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.” – Amy Poehler


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