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  • Writer's pictureEndring

Size Matters: How Small Teams Deliver Better Strategy Outcomes

When we are about to start a Strategy Sprint with a team (or when we're developing a Culture Aspiration, or designing an Employee Experience), the first thing that usually comes to mind is: who is going to be on this team?

As a leader, we usually start making a mental list of the people that report to us, people who report to them, important stakeholders from across the organization, as well as key top talent we want to make sure know that we value them.

Before we know it we have a list of 20 or more folks that we want to bring together, and we start wondering how we are going to achieve any effective result.

This 20+ person team is just too big.

Often, as leaders, we want to include as many people as possible to solve a problem. We might believe that we need a lot of perspectives to ensure we understand risks and issues, or we might be pressured by organizational politics to include a whole host of people.

Sometimes we may NOT want to exclude people for fear of hurting their feelings and/or damaging their perception of how much we value them.

But including too many people makes the strategy sprint unwieldy and ineffective.

If we are able to keep our sprint team size small, we’ll be able to:

  • Harvest the best ideas and insights

  • Improve the speed of decision-making

  • Stimulate innovation and creativity

  • Increase team flexibility and adaptability

So the dilemma becomes: How do we ensure that we maintain speed, innovation and nimbleness in the team, but at the same time get all the needed perspectives, engagement of important stakeholders, and leverage our people?

Here’s how to construct your team so that the strategy process is both effective and powerful - and how the Strategy Sprint approach ensures you get the perspectives you need.

1. Keep it Tight

From our experience running strategy sprints and helping teams solve complex problems we have found that the sweet spot for team members is in the 6 - 8 people range.

Anything below 4 limits your ability to truly create great outputs, and anything more than 9 people the decisions start to slow and alignment in direction starts to degrade.

With 6-8 people you have enough members to ensure there are diverse perspectives. We often find that there are key players who - because of their previous experience and reach - can wear a couple of different hats on the team, and are trusted by others to represent them well.

With a tight team you create a level of intimacy where it is easier to build trust and a psychologically safe environment. People on the team feel comfortable to have their voice heard. Increased ideation emerges as a result of the group’s tight-knit size and camaraderie.

And when you keep the team tight, you are able to move discussions forward more quickly, debates are shorter, decisions can be made faster - on the whole, you can maintain speed and momentum which is critical to keep energy levels up and keep people engaged.

The bigger the team, the more time discussions take, the slower decisions are made. When this happens, not only does the process become inefficient: people can get bored or frustrated, and start to check out.

So the first step is to set the target of your team to be 6 - 8 great people. Of course exceptions can always be made, but we have observed that the trade-offs are truly felt with each person that is added.

2. Choose wisely

Projects and circumstances can slightly alter the criteria you use to select the people that you need on the team, but it’s always critically important to ensure that you’re curating membership based on some decision-making principles.

Here’s our baseline criteria that we introduce to leaders to help construct effective sprint teams. We recommend that the individuals have:

  • Direct experience, insights and perspectives on the problem that needs to be solved

  • The confidence and courage to participate and make their voice heard

  • The kind of mindset that thrives in a fast-paced process, with a willingness to experiment

  • A willingness to get their ‘hands dirty’ and roll up their sleeves to help move the team forward (beware of the ‘hands off’ archetype)

  • A feeling of ownership and ‘skin in the game’ for the outcomes the strategy sprint process

For the team as a whole, you should also be ensuring there is diversity on the team - diversity of thought, experience, and ways of solving problems - and that you have enough representation from different parts of the organization - like front-line and support functions - as well as either directly or indirectly bringing the voice from different constituencies e.g., customers, partners and employees.

(For more on this, check out our previous post on building great teams).

3. Include Others’ Perspectives (without Including them on the team)

To ensure that you’re capturing (and not missing) important perspectives and engaging the right stakeholders in the process, each of the 3 phases of the sprint builds in important exercises.

  • Pre-Sprint: In our previous newsletters we spoke about the importance of Listening and Engaging to uncover important perspectives and factors that will contribute to the strategy formulation - and ultimately the problem that you need to solve. The outputs from interviews, small group discussions or focus groups in this phase are digested and analyzed by the sprint team.

  • During the Sprint: In addition to the sprint team clarifying the problem to solve, as well as the most important and salient strategic issues to address, there is a segment where we can invite ‘special guests’ and experts for the team to interview. This is a way to give stakeholders the ‘air time’ that is needed and the team front seat to important additional insights. Once the strategy is starting to take shape - but before it is too ‘baked’ - taking the opportunity to validate our ‘Minimum Viable Product’ strategy is a powerful way to engage our people and customers in the process, which helps the sprint team iterate, refine and clarify the strategy.

  • Post-Sprint: During the sprint, in addition to validating with stakeholders, we’ve also action planned and determined low-risk experiments to confirm assumptions in the strategy. The experimentation phase after the sprint allows the team to enroll others in the organization in both ideating and executing experiments. Armed with real data and results, this input can help the leadership tweak the strategy to reflect the findings.

4. Dialogue, Dialogue, and more Dialogue

Communicating openly and frequently about the approach you have taken (and why) before, during and after the sprint signals that you are being transparent about the process. Allow people to ask questions about the approach, and create an open dialogue.

If you have based your decisions on a set of criteria, are protecting the effectiveness of the process, and have made sure to offer opportunities to engage before, during and after the sprint, you can authentically deal with any objections.

Where you need to manage delicate stakeholders (or bruised egos), invest the time in 1:1 dialogue. It opens the door for them to ask questions, express any views they might have, and that may need more of that 1:1 time.

In Summary

When we start our strategy design (ideally through a sprint format) many of us have an inclination to include more people on the team. If we give in to this temptation, we’ll pay for it later through a slow process and inefficiencies, and who knows, maybe even a watered down strategy.

However, it is possible to engage multiple stakeholders for their perspectives - and keep them engaged - while at the same time enabling a small, tight and dynamic team to get the work done effectively:

  1. Keep it tight

  2. Choose wisely

  3. Include others’ perspectives before, during and after the sprint

  4. Dialogue, Dialogue, and more Dialogue

If you enjoyed this issue, feel free to subscribe and/or reach out to us.

Thanks for reading. See you again next week!

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