Dynamics of a Small Team When Implementing CM and ALM


In her Personality Matters series, Leslie Sachs examines the personalities and people issues that are found in technology groups from cross-functional, high-performance teams to dysfunctional matrix organizations.

Small teams can have big dynamics that threaten the team’s success in terms of productivity and effectiveness. This article will examine some of the essential people issues that arise when implementing software configuration management (SCM) and application lifecycle management (ALM) with small teams.

Small teams always evoke an image of a warm and cozy work environment that exudes a strong sense of purpose and belonging. Small teams are like families where everyone knows each other and boundaries between professional and personal lives are often blurred. Anyone who has ever actually run a family business knows that the reality is rarely quite as rosy. Small teams can have big dynamics that threaten the team’s success in terms of productivity and effectiveness. If you need to manage—or even just belong—to a small team, then you'll want to become familiar with some of these important dynamics. This article will examine some of the essential people issues that arise when implementing configuration management (CM) and application lifecycle management (ALM) with small teams.

Family Dynamics
Family dynamics can be very challenging. In my book on configuration management best practices, I discuss that the “most common characteristics found in most dysfunctional systems are poor communication systems and lack of respect. Effective interventions are often needed to help the parents understand their own unique contribution to the family system.” [1] Small teams often have equally challenging dynamics that can indeed resemble dysfunctional families. The key is usually to recognize and appreciate the differences among the members and to implement strategies that help the team reach excellence.  Managing these dynamics can present challenges for the team's manager or project lead.

The Challenge of Managing a Small Team
The manager of a small team may face challenges that can be every bit as difficult as those encountered by the manager of a large organization. Small teams may have history and entrenched dynamics that can make change almost impossible. This is especially problematic when a small team needs to grow by even just one or two additional members (presumably to keep up with the demands of the project). These issues will become readily apparent when implementing CM and ALM. The first step is to ascertain just how much process is necessary.

Do I Really Need CM and ALM?
Small teams need CM controls, including source code management, automated build, application package, and automated deployment. Many small teams exist in regulatory environments where they are required to have a separation of controls, including independent build and deployment by a group that is not managed within the development organization. ALM helps to manage workflow and the entire application development lifecycle. Small teams may not need as much formal process as larger, globally distributed teams, but they do need some process in the form of IT controls. Your job is to ascertain how much process is enough and also to be prepared to grow as needed. You also need to consider all of the team members and their own special traits.

Birth Order at Work
Birth order often tells us a lot about how siblings may behave in the family, and this can also be true in the small team. The youngest members of the team are often the idea people who initiate and challenge everything around them [2]. These are the inventors who may need to be encouraged to grow and get serious. Firstborns are famously experienced as being the natural leaders who avoid risk while offering stability. The middle born are often known as the “people” people who are the natural born compromisers. These are just a few examples of classic family dynamics that you may find in your small group. The first step in dealing with the members of your team is to recognize your group's own special dynamics and devise strategies for helping the team achieve excellence. This is not always easy to do and may require what could be described as personality guerrilla tactics. In previous articles, I have explained that you may need to be a bit of a scientist, forming a hypothesis, testing and implementing interventions, and then assessing what works and what doesn't.  You also need to be prepared for some bumps along the way.
Small Teams Grow
Successful small teams often face the challenges of accepting new members and dealing with all of the dynamics of a growing family. The team may find itself mired in its own dynamics and resist influences from forces outside the group. There may even be a sense of the group forming a strong “us versus them” view of the world. All of these dynamics can make the team very difficult to manage. However, just as nuclear families learn to adapt to the addition of new members, small teams usually gradually adjust to changes as well.

The successful manager will employ savvy people skills to assess the team's dynamics. Using the analogy of a family that I have described here may provide helpful insight as you need to assess your own team's strengths and weaknesses. The next step is to consider approach tactics and then evaluate what works and what doesn't. Since “people” issues come with the turf whether your team is large or small, insight into these dynamics will certainly empower you regardless of the managerial challenge you face.

[1] Aiello, Robert and Leslie Sachs. Configuration Management Best Practices: Practical Methods that Work in the Real World. Addison-Wesley, 2010, p. 155.

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