How Your Small Team Can Have A Big Impact: Lessons From ONA 2014

Making things happen with limited resources and a small team can be a challenge. It can also be an opportunity to experiment and think creatively. During our ONA panel on Friday, John Keefe of WNYC succinctly captured this sentiment with the sage advice: Do crazy sh*t sometimes. (In his case, that meant roadtripping to a cabin in the Catskills with his team in order to finish a major project.)

John, Adam and I share the experience of building and leading small news apps teams within our organizations and we've learned a lot along the way. We wanted to talk openly about our biggest obstacles and how we've tackled them — in order to make our work more effective and our working lives happier.

Here are a few of our ideas:

  • Break down ambitious projects and iterate. Figure out the most essential part of the project/idea and start by solving that problem. You can add features and build on the project in the future.
  • Check in regularly and be honest about obstacles. We can't get things done if we can't talk about what's preventing us from doing the work.
  • Attend the daily news meeting. If possible sit in the newsroom. Being present during the editorial process will encourage collaboration and make your news apps team more accessible.
  • Don't make people feel stupid. If you want to build momentum for news apps and special projects in your org, try not to talk down to your colleagues just because they have different skill sets. Instead, encourage skill sharing across departments, talk about what you're learning, and reach out to those who may be shy about approaching the team.
  • Say no and explain why. Inevitably you will have to say no — you're on a small team, after all. But when you do, explain why and include people by explaining your decision making process. Affirm ideas even you can’t immediately execute them.
  • Automate repetitive tasks. Think of it like a word processing macro. Anything you do over an over again can probably be automated, saving time and making your process more consistent. Writing simple automation scripts can also be a great way to learn some basic programming even if you’re not very technical (or at least is a way to start thinking like a programmer). Check out IFTTT for some ideas.
  • Document all the things. It can feel like a waste of precious time but it will save your butt in the future. Keep a simple txt file for a project and keep notes about what you've learned, bugs you've solved and your general process. This documentation will help you share your work with others and help you remember how the heck you built something.
  • Look to the community. There are so many excellent resources out there. Check out IRE/NICAR (and subscribe to NICAR-L). Explore some of the open source code that newsrooms are releasing. Read about how other teams make things over at Source. You don't have to reinvent the wheel, and this community is full of people who want to help.

Check out all of the slides below. Find our notes (and contribute your own ideas) on the Hackpad we put together. We know our ideas are only a small piece of this important topic and we'd like to keep building on the conversation.