Strategy and Focus in Small Teams: the New Black Mike | March 9th, 2015

Critical to any successful business is the ability to create and execute upon strategic planning. Large organizations manage this process by distributing elements of high-level strategy across multiple units, silos, or departments, each with the responsibility to effect their own sliver of the overall plan. This can often lead to bureaucratic inefficiencies, watered-down approaches, and ineffective execution.

Small businesses have a distinct advantage when it comes to developing and executing strategic plans, even though working with a small team can be a trial, particularly when a product or service is complex. Small teams, constrained by capacity, can be severely tested when tackling larger problems, or executing plans with many moving parts. But working with small teams is rewarding, and extremely effective when done well. The challenge is to find ways to increase the team’s productivity, encourage individual ownership, and unleash creativity though the collaborative process.

One of the greatest advantages of a small team is the intimacy that is created. Strong bonds develop quickly when working closely together and when there is minimal hierarchy, open communication, transparency into goals and process, and a collaborative approach to identifying problems and crafting solutions. It is incumbent on the leadership of a small team to create an atmosphere where the members feel confident in their abilities, secure in their positions, and willing to contribute ideas. The leader must create a structure that allows for this special atmosphere to develop and permits the individuals to thrive within it.

Every organization will approach the process differently, and every leader will flavor the process with her or his own distinct style, but common to the effort are these five elements, each necessary to the success of the undertaking, large or small:

1. Set meaningful goals. Teams need clearly defined goals in order to succeed and the chances of success are greatest when the team develops those goals together. Leaders should begin the strategic planning process with a set of loosely defined goals, present those to the team and allow them to define the specifics of what they need to accomplish. Imagine your small team is presented with data that indicates profit at your company is declining and their job is to define a goal to reverse this. This problem can, of course, be solved in several ways: the team could determine that reducing expense is the best approach; alternately they might determine that increasing revenues may be a better approach. Clearly, either of these methods could have the same result, but the team’s choice will determine the goals they develop. By allowing the team to collaborate on defining goals you are allowing them to own those goals, and it is that ownership that will flavor the entire planning process.

2. Start at a high-level. Working at a high level when developing strategy, then drilling into the specifics allows small teams to collaborate and allows for creative approaches. One technique is a white-board session, which can be very effective in articulating strategy; allow the team to boil down the approach and agree on that which they deem the most effective. For instance, that team at the e-commerce company might have determined that the goal is to increase per-customer revenue by 20%. The process might start with a discussion of different ways to accomplish the goal they have set for themselves. But, before drilling down into specific strategic approaches (i.e. developing new  acquisition channels, improving average shopping cart values, or increasing customer lifetime value) the discussion should focus on the broad topic and determine the best strategic approach.

3. Debate tactics. Once strategy has been defined, the team should start to concentrate on developing the specific tactics they will execute. Improving average shopping cart value is a strategy, not a tactic. Free the team to improvise, to debate, and to spitball ideas for approaches that might work. Narrow these down to those most likely to have an immediate impact and let the team develop to-do lists and actionable items. This does not have to mean endless meetings and interminable discussions; the team leader should guide this process such that it moves forward quickly and clearly and then the team members should be sent off quickly to get to work.

4. Execute. Divide the work, distribute the tasks, delegate the responsibility and you will see the efficiency of the small-team process at work. Once a clear set of requirements has been developed make sure that each team member understands their own action items, has acknowledged their deadline for delivery, and is communicating progress regularly and clearly. Schedule periodic meetings of the team to solve problems as they arise, answer questions as they arise, and allow for continuing collaborative input. When each team member has a concise understanding of their own deliverables and expectations are properly set, you will be astounded with the speed at which things start to happen.

5. Analyze the data. Finally, be sure to build in measurement. The strategy that you define and every tactic that you execute in its service needs to be measurable or you will have no material way to know if you are succeeding or failing. If your team can bake this in from the very start, can begin collecting data from day 1, can quickly and effectively analyze and present that data back to the team, you will have the ability to adjust course as needed, tweak (or even discontinue) specific tactics, alter your approach on the fly. One of the huge benefits of a small organization have is its ability to duck, weave, bob, and pivot; never forget to use your team’s adaptability and flexibility  to your advantage!

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