4 Tips for Maximizing Teams in Small Software Development Shops
March 04, 2024

Jim Remsik

Small software design and development shops, those with less than 25 employees, operate differently from large sized operations with hundreds upon hundreds of staff. Not only do big shops have more bodies, they have deeper pockets. Small shops, though, have their own advantages. They're nimble, often close knit, and employees are usually led directly by senior, hands-on practitioners.

Still, faced with lesser budget and resources, small shops must constantly be on the lookout for ways to maximize teams. The following four tips can help owners and leaders fine tune their operations for greater performance, cost efficiency, profitability and employee satisfaction.

1. Build an environment of trust

Teams can become paralyzed when it comes to decision making if they don't have a sense of a likely outcome. Productivity and performance can suffer, too. Think of it this way, if you're in a haunted house and every step leads you closer to terror, you're going to take smaller steps — or none at all. In a small shop, this can result in costly, stalled initiatives, along with a sense of anxiety that needs to be managed as well.

On the other hand, with an environment they trust, staff can move more fluidly and with greater confidence, so they get more done and have more fun doing it. This also means managers end up with less on their plate and gain bandwidth to focus on higher priority tasks.

The key to building an environment of trust is by setting expectations, providing opportunities for ownership and communicating. Listen to make sure that what you tell employees is being received and adjust the message to fit the person and position. With buy-in, you'll have a shop where all are pulling in the same direction and can accomplish more, one in which everyone has each other's back to also ensure greater continuity.

2. Grant autonomy

If a small shop leader fails to grant autonomy — and instead micromanages and shoulder surfs to make sure tasks get done precisely the way they wish — morale and efficiency will take a big hit. That said, define with staff what success looks like and then allow people to work towards that goal on their own.

Be sure employees provide you with feedback as they advance work. You can even set periods of autonomy, after which you can evaluate if an effort is going down the right path, and if not, nudge them back on course. When a person proves they understand expectations and the need to keep the business informed, you can grant them additional autonomy — but this is something they should grow into.

You should be able to rely on your team to take the ball and run with it, if not, bottlenecks will form and other areas of your job may be neglected. For instance, in the past, all of our hiring basically went through me. I found candidates, vetted them, introduced them to the team. This made getting talent a painfully slow process, so I asked a teammate to improve our hiring process.

They owned it, got feedback from the rest of the shop, then created an approach that generated greater interest, while making it easier to qualify talent and communicate with applicants. We ended up with terrific candidates we otherwise might never have met. This also yielded lots of follow-up from folks we didn't hire, saying they appreciated how the process made them feel more respected and better informed.

3. Create a safe space to fail

People look at the word failure as having a strictly negative connotation. In our shop, we find it's best to define failure as not achieving anticipated outcomes. No personal judgment is involved because there are often valid reasons or circumstances that can impact work in ways that we cannot predict.

The key is to not make the same mistake over and over; learn from it and do better next time. If people understand failure is an opportunity to avoid bad outcomes, they'll be more likely to identify it sooner and make changes. If failure is treated as a total negative, they'll be more apt to hide it. They won't get the bad outcome they want to avoid at the moment, but you can bet it'll surface eventually and probably do even greater damage.

To that end, we created a space with an internal framework allowing any person in the company to propose an experiment. The team comes together, proposals are made, we discuss changes that could make it more feasible, and then all vote to move forward or nix the experiment. This has produced opportunities for our shop which never would have come to light if employees didn't feel empowered to kick ideas around.

That said, though, ensure there are controls in place so experiments don't run amok and cut into productivity. Also, keep in mind that when an initiative is vaguely defined it can often consume more resources than expected and impede buy-in from others who are involved. We have just one rule: You can't change somebody else's job without their explicit consent.

4. Encourage feedback

I'm not a personal mission statement guy but in preparing for a presentation a number of years ago I came up with the following: "Genuinely desire success for those around you and do what you can to make it happen." I think this works well in shops and with creative people, so long as you don't try to define what success looks like for others.

Leaders who feel employees making a good salary should do whatever work they get, and like it, won't have sustained success. You'd have trouble getting everybody on board because that's not what success feels like to them. Employees will vote with their feet and leave, and leadership will miss out on an opportunity to get valuable insight.

That's why it's important to encourage feedback. If not, you could lose talent, customers, even business segments, simply because there was no effort to understand what motivates people to do their best work. And yes, it may wind up being a thing you can't provide and that's a valuable insight.

We hold one on ones for each employee with their manager on a bi-weekly basis and schedule regular skip-level meetings so they can meet with their boss's boss. Whatever your situation, providing regular space for people to communicate while you actively listen is essential. Finally, look into a third party reporting tool that will allow your people to share concerns or provide feedback, ideally anonymously.

Small shops, big advantages

Small shops might operate leaner but their ability to shape their environment is far greater, providing a unique opportunity to maximize and empower teams. This can provide a major advantage when it comes to controlling costs, fine tuning operations and driving improvements, allowing a smaller shop to punch well above its weight.

Jim Remsik is Founder and CEO of Flagrant
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