Whether you’re working at a startup or software consultancy, there may come a time when you will need to manage multiple, differently-sized teams of developers. Small groups of 1 to 3 developers differ greatly from their larger counterparts. As the Project Manager, you’ll need to develop a strong emotional intelligence, a demolisher of anti-patterns, and be a continuously engaging mentor in order to be successful at managing small teams of developers.
There are many benefits to working with and managing small teams, especially those that are cross-functional. People-management and morale issues will be much simpler and straight-forward, so long as you establish trust and transparency. Scheduling and task delegation is equally simplified, but at the same time tedious if scope and communication channels have not been properly defined.
Below is a 4-step mini-guide designed to help you through your foray into small team development.
Scope management is the process of ensuring the team understands the completion goal of the required work on a project. This includes making sure work not required for the current iteration is left alone and the focus is primarily on the immediate deliverables. Managing a smaller project’s scope is arguably less significant than on larger projects where undefined complexities can derail budget and deadline expectations due to a lack of communication. Since you’ll be working with a small team, as long as communication is consistent, you’ll be able to predict derailment and blocking issues with much more certainty.
Start off by defining each team’s Definition of Done (DoD). Record this somewhere that all developers can reference and hold themselves accountable. The DoD is a checklist of activities that must be completed before any work item or feature can be considered truly ‘Done’.
Ask these questions to help determine the team’s DoD:
- Does each feature need to be tested before a commit?
- Does a Product Owner sign-off need to occur?
- Do we need release notes/documentation?
Next up, you’ll want to define the product vision. This is essentially a very brief business case that describes the overall project goal through customer expectations and goals. It should generally include vital KPIs and high-level, end-goal information.
Joel Spolsky has an excellent blog post (with examples!) on creating product visions here.
The second step in building and managing small teams effectively (any team, really) is developing trust as their Project Manager. Building trust involves a whole lot of psychology and effort that some have made an entire career out of. If you haven’t thought about this, you’ll want to research the topic a bit more.
On a small team, you’ll want to figure out the motivation of each member and integrate tailored goals into their work day. Is your employee motivated by recognition, or simply the satisfaction of completing a list of tasks? Try to start this motivation as early as possible by giving them easily achievable goals up front. If the project scope was defined and you potentially have a clear task breakdown, start with ‘baby step’ development for the first couple of weeks. Set the first Sprint goal as a realistic, yet easily attainable and define a stretch goal that they can push for and achieve. There’s nothing like starting off a project feeling like a rock star developer.
Developing trust through goals will give your team members confidence in your leadership ability and faith in themselves to complete their work.
Establish Communication Channels
In an Agile environment, small teams thrive on information. If you’ve got multiple teams you’re looking after, constant communication with the stakeholders and technical gurus will easily consume your day. To prevent that, you’ll want to expose your communication channel to your team members and designate a single point of contact for project questions that you cannot answer yourself, be it technical or design-oriented.
For this, we designate a Product Owner. In Scrum, they’re a dedicated point of contact for the team. Even if you’re not using Agile, you will still need a point of contact for your teams whom they can freely shoot question to through email. On larger teams, it may make sense for everyone to email you throughout the day and assemble a list of questions to be sent out. On a smaller team there’s going to be much fewer email threads, so your points of contact should be fine with communicating directly with your developers.
Quick note: Since the team size is limited, be careful you’re not too closely monitoring their day-to-day and falling into micromanagement. If you’re used to tracking the progress of tasks for larger groups, try to ease back a bit and just let them work.
Find a Rhythm
Humans are creatures of habit — make sure your team is developing good ones. The benefit of a reduced team member count is the ability to easily pick up on developing anti-patterns and squash them before they become an issue. If you’re practicing Scrum (which you should!), it is vital to the process to adhere to the Daily Scrum schedule and host all events consistently, like the Retrospectives and Sprint Review.
You’ll want to also generate a workflow for your tasks that each developer uses. This can be a detailed workflow chart of how each task is handled, i.e. assign the task to QA before changing the state to done.
The best advice for finding your team’s rhythm is to just do it! Commit to and host all Scrum events, even if the value seems questionable at the start of development; it’ll pay off before long. Hold each member accountable for attending and participating, and they’ll soon develop a daily flow that’ll help your team rock through their work.
At Frogslayer, we approach software development a bit differently than other companies. We cater our processes to each client and work with them to craft quality software and next-level product experiences on-time and on-budget. Whether you’re single-handedly balancing a dozen cross-functional teams or running a large consultancy, we’ll work with you to find a transparent and effective workflow.
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