A few weeks ago, we learned the incredible news that our friends from ENVISION, USAID’s flagship Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) project, for which RTI serves as lead implementer, supported the Government of Nepal in eliminating trachoma.
Trachoma is a bacterial eye infection that can lead to corneal opacity, the foremost infectious cause of blindness worldwide. This dreaded, life-altering disease causes extreme pain and suffering.
What an achievement by this team, and how proud we are of them.
You might think that a team tackling such a serious public health problem would be large, but the ENVISION project office in Kathmandu includes 10 dedicated individuals. As I discovered during a visit to Nepal two months ago, while they may not be a large team, they’re certainly a mighty one, and their might grows out of their passion for solving problems and impacting lives.
During my visit, which included stops in India and Thailand, I met RTI experts who are front and center in the biggest battles facing communities and countries in their respective regions and in our world. Spending time with the individuals who comprise these teams was inspiring and educational, and it got me thinking about the big potential of small teams.
Small teams often have more opportunities than big teams to turn challenges into sources of strength. The teams I met with overseas—groups taking on complex issues relating to wildlife trafficking, clean water and sanitation, or early-grade reading—have learned to overcome seen and unforeseen obstacles, and to do so with limited resources, in low-resource settings. They’re not unlike small teams working on big problems at other organizations and in other fields.
But how do small teams make major changes? Let’s explore this using the TEAM acronym:
- T-Trust. Trust is a critical part of any high-performing team. Getting to really know someone—their strengths, special capabilities, passions, hot buttons—helps form bonds that build trust. Small teams are afforded a special opportunity simply because there are fewer people with whom to connect and interact. The sooner teammates can knit tight, trusting bonds with teammates, the quicker they can begin to tackle the task at hand.
- E-Ego…checked. We’re all familiar with the famous quote, “There is no ‘I’ in team.” Some pundits have been quick to add there is “an ‘m’ and an ‘e’ in team.” This wisdom is particularly important for small teams. When small teams are addressing big issues, there is always tons to do. Divas and drama are dark clouds for small teams. While an “I” focus drains energy from small teams, a willingness to engage “all of me” is different. This approach highlights what everyone can contribute. Shining your light without blocking a teammate illuminates what the whole team can do.
- A-Adaptability. Everyone knows speedboats are more nimble than battleships. Think of small teams as speedboats within your organization. Their size is an advantage, enabling members to quickly align around a problem or concept. Being small makes it easier to establish roles and responsibilities, zig-zag to avoid the inevitable obstacles, and flex to successfully navigate necessary changes. While situations arise that require the use of big teams, capitalizing on the agility and power of small teams can be an organizational advantage.
- M-Mission-focused. Having a common, meaningful purpose galvanizes small teams quickly. While this is true for big teams as well, members of small teams often speak about the closeness that develops when a few colleagues come together, bonded by the experience of achieving something truly mission-critical together. Mission-focused work can be the beacon to guide small teams when the level of work or obstacles loom too large. At RTI, our mission is to improve the human condition by turning knowledge into practice. Despite the different areas in which we work, this passion connects everyone in our organization. Our mission bonds and fuels our small teams to achieve huge results.
As evidenced by the success of ENVISION and all the other life-changing projects we work on every day around the globe, we have opportunities to make immediate, real-world impact. We learn and adapt quickly because we have to act strategically when forming and deploying teams to tackle big problems and achieve big results. As we’ve seen in Nepal and with other projects, by remembering to work as a TEAM, little can become big and small can become mighty.