When Less Becomes More For Large Product Teams

Over the past couple of years, Atomic has added larger clients to its portfolio. Large clients bring with them long-running projects, bigger budgets, and a track record of consistent, on-time payments. They are ideal when you are growing an office beyond 20 team members.

With long-running projects, though, there will come moments when an important change occurs inside the client’s organization. The change could be a new CEO with innovative ideas and a change in direction for the company. Or the client could change its strategic focus through a merger or acquisition. And quite possibly the market could force an unavoidable change.

When a large change occurs, I’ve found it’s necessary to take a step back, examine the project, and decide if any changes need to be made. And there are situations when the right choice is to proactively shrink the team to help the client.

When Change Becomes Necessary

Every product effort has a moment when a hard decision needs to be made. Typically, these decisions arise from the nature of the boundary conditions around the effort. Limitations in time and budget drive hard choices about which items in the backlog take priority. Is it that new feature the client believes will take the product to the next level? Or do you choose to focus on fixing issues found in the last sprint? I’ve seen several projects where the product owners couldn’t make the hard choice and the team paid the price.

In large client product efforts, it’s important to keep a strong relationship not only with the team and client but also with important people in the client organization. When trust exists, you will have access to important information. And you have a responsibility to provide help through your outside perspective when asked.

After working both inside and outside these large efforts, I’ve learned there is a very limited window of time to get something done. In my experience, the average time is roughly three years. After that, if the product effort has not been delivered, an outside force will end the project. The client’s marketplace, leadership, or company makeup will change.

With this in mind, it’s important to keep a close eye on the company when you start to hear about big changes happening. If you notice that there is growing uncertainty about where the project fits in the company strategy and your direct contacts are struggling with lots of uncertainty, it is probably time to make a change to the product team.

Why Smaller Teams are Better

Atomic is a fan of smaller teams. In our experience, small teams outperform large teams on projects. Small teams have a high degree of ownership when doing important work. This allows them to have a deep connection to what they are doing and to care about what they deliver. Time is the most valuable resource, and small teams work hard to hit tight deadlines.

Carl has an excellent post that demonstrates why small teams are better than large teams for product development. In short, small teams have less overhead with coordination and communication. Their defect rate is much smaller. And there is even a math formula that says the cost of the effort rises as the square of the number of people on the team.

Jason Porritt, who has worked on several large product teams, wrote about how to rekindle that small-team feeling. He explains how, in large product teams that focus on compliance and roles, there is less accountability around the gray areas. In his opinion, part of this is driven by people protecting their personal success. There are also ways silos of information can form that make it hard for the team to see what is going on.

I fully believe small teams are the best at getting stuff done. They have clear goals, a way to achieve the goal, people who take responsibility, and a purpose. The energy that comes from a small team is unique. Ultimately, communication is why small teams win. They can focus on delivering and avoid all the communication overhead that comes with large teams.

Why Companies Struggle with Shrinking Their Teams

Unless the money runs out, most mid-level company leaders will struggle with a decision to shrink a team. The idea of giving up a pair of developers is full of fear. There’s fear that all features they wanted for the product will take longer, or fear that they will never get the developers back. There’s fear that all their hard work and effort will come to nothing, and the product they’ve built their reputation on will be dead.

There is also an incentive for them to hold onto the team as long as possible. Large teams convey importance and power inside companies. To have your team shrink brings a reduction in status and importance.

As such, it makes it hard for them to see the opportunity the change really represents: a chance for them to work with their leadership team to get alignment on where the product fits in the companies strategy. It also highlights why it’s important to continue to make the investment and how they should approach doing this product work moving forward.

Take the time now and get alignment and understanding at the leadership level in the company. Doing so will allow them to make the right decisions and remove internal friction regarding your product. With the friction removed, you will speed up the product development work in the future. Slow down now to eventually go fast.

Making the Hard Choice

When you slow down the product work, you must shrink the team. You will have less upfront planning work happening to organize features into the backlog for development. With the backlog shrinking, you need to make the hard choice and shrink the team.

I’ve learned that if the client can’t make the choice, it may be up to you to make it. Pulling a pair of developers early will reduce the budget burn and allow the team to have more time to work on the product. The extra time will allow the client to have the internal conversations needed to remove some of the uncertainty in the future.

It’s not easy making the call, and not all clients are happy about it at first. But, eventually, they come to see the wisdom in the decision. And the best part is that you just created more certainty and clarity for everyone. The client gets more time to figure things out. And you’ve reduced your company’s risk of team members suddenly not having work and a project is ended.

When faced with the gray and unknown, take control and create a path forward. Your client will be happy about it. And your team will appreciate you for making the hard decision. That choice will give them confidence someone is taking care of them and the client, and keeping them engaged on work with a future.