• Size Matters : Dealing with large teams

    Every week we have a practice meeting at Adaptive Path, where we discuss and share project work and process insights, share tips and tools and brainstorm or problem-solve on issues that are important to the practice.

    We recently dug into topics relating to big project teams, as many of the engagements we do involve lots of people. What is big? For us, teams that have 4-5 designers and 8+ business stakeholders…so teams that are 12 people or more.

    One thing that came up is that we need to realize there are no tricks, and admit there are no simple solutions. Simple is foolhardy. We need to embrace the complexity. After all, we’re people: quirky, inconsistent, mercurial, human, and our human foibles get magnified when we work together in teams.

    We also identified that there are two kinds of large teams, and they have specific challenges::

    • Large number of tactical team members : Challenges are about dividing out the work and managing input to the work.
    • Large teams of stakeholders: Challenges are about managing expectations.

    Both spark challenges related to communication and decision-making.

    Overall, the problems (and ideas to address them) fell into three buckets: 1) decision-making and consensus; 2) communicating and presenting; 3) reviews and feedback. Here’s what we captured for each bucket.

    Decision-making and consensus

    In the beginning

    • Early on, pick someone who can (and will) decide. Figure that out early.
    • Identify a single point of authority on the team. If you’re a consultant, than both teams (client and consultant) need to have this, and these two people need to work together and have a relationship that is candid, respectful, open and honest.
    • Do stakeholder interviews at the start, and do them with all the members of the team. This helps you recognize and leverage the strengths and relationships. Be aware of how political the environment is, and identify people who can help you navigate politics.
    • If you’re working with a bunch of people you don’t often work with (like a client team if you’re a consultant, or a cross-functional team if you’re in-house) build in time for the group to get to know each other. The discovery phase at the start of a project is a perfect time to do this. The group members will need to make decisions together, so test-drive some decision-making and then define the process (or dictate the process) so that everyone is clear how choices will be made and supported.
    • Note: this is a good time to go back and review the project schedule. Do you have enough time estimated to cover the tempo of decisionmaking? The more people involved, the more time it takes, but the resulting decisions are more strongly held.
    • Set ground rules for engagement. Inform the whole team how communication will be handled so that expectations are in sync. Cover who will be involved when, the process for making decisions, and when during the project key decisions will need to be made.

    Presenting and Communicating

    • When you need to present to a large group, work with a smaller group beforehand, and incorporate this feedback when showing to the larger group.
    • A larger team means larger meetings, and these require more planning and prep for communication. But you need to strike a balance: the tactical team needs to have input. If the communication is too formalized, then it may appear more done than it actually is, and you may not get the level of feedback you are seeking.

    Reviews & feedback

    • For herding cats: build smaller fences. Have lots of smaller, nimble meetings and reviews rather than ocean-boiling monster meetings.
    • Avoid letting people make soft decisions. (Soft decisions are those calculated not to hurt peoples feelings.) Create an environment where it’s safe to voice honest ideas and opinions to make the work better.
    • Avoid the large team from having to do processing on the fly. An open-ended review with a large team is not a good time for a discussion. Large reviews need more focus. When this happens, you may need to be insistent on shutting down the open discussion and retaining focus. When concrete things are said, you can capture and address them.
    • If you’re working with folks from a bunch of different teams, have a spokesperson to collect feedback from their team and consolidate it.
    • When aligning the larger team, the single point of authority needs to take on the responsibility to rally consensus. Often the design team’s role is to guide the choices and support the group by giving them good decision-making tools to use.
    • Make sure decisions don’t go feral. Reinforce (and enforce) that the whole team comes together around a decision. Then capture the decision and communicate it back to everyone. In written form.

    Do you have tips and techniques for effectively managing big teams? Please post them in the comments. This is an ongoing topic and one that is really important to getting great user-centered work out into the world.

    There are 2 thoughts on this idea

    1. Erin Young

      There are a lot of truths in this post. For me, the main takeaways is simply how important it is to have strong project/account management involved!

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