How to Best Manage a Small Team

Hey guys,

I was just wondering, for any small teams out there (for reference, mine is about 20 members) how do you best utilize your members and how do you handle commitment? We have tried to split up our members into teams but when a team is only three members and the lead is usually at another club or work, it does not really work too well. Also, on certain days when half the club is involved in another organization, very little work gets done since few people are there. We can’t really ask anyone to choose between robotics and sports or other clubs but building a robot in six weeks requires a lot of attendance. Right now we just have people come when they can but I am wondering if there may be another system. Thanks.

hi we( myself and three other mentors) manage 2 small teams 3134 girls and 3275 boys. 18 and 10 students respectively. some are also involved in other activities and it is hard. we have a small core group of 7-8 total. on the commitment side our students log hrs. the top 4 from each team are granted a spot on the trip to the regional, then they and the mentors go over a process to get 8 students from each team to go o the trip
one thing i recommend is not to take on too much in any aspect. we have never gone for any of the additional awards thus far (just dont have the man or woman power). dont get to far out on robot complexity. try and find a niche for each student (assigning ppl to teams ie build, PR, media, doesn’t seem to work to well for us. the students need to be able to contribute in a way they feel comfortable (at least at first). students may have to make a choice as to what they want to be involved with for ec. activities. but we as mentors try to make as much time available as possible.

good luck!!!

Why not? If you join a football team there are certain expectations about your commitment - you don’t get to skip every training session and expect to play in the grand final.

Everyone has to make decisions about what is important to them - and joining a robotics team means it has to be important enough for you to meet the expectations that the team has of its members (whatever they might be) - and this might mean it needs to be important enough for you to make sacrifices elsewhere. IMHO one of the foundations of a team is that team members need to be able to rely on one another to actually turn up so that work can be done. Turning up every now and then when you don’t have a better offer is unfair to everyone else (and pretty rude if you ask me). “I’ll come and hang out with you guys if I can’t find something better to do…”

Why should mentors give up their time to help young people who might not even turn up?

Just something important to tell your kids… You get out what you put in… If they don’t have “time” for the robot, its most likely not going to be the best… Also, its best to utilize the 6 weeks now, instead of a stressful last day where your legs are about to fall off.

I agree 100%. Most of our members had to give up other clubs/sports to commit to robotics, including myself. If you do not show up, you should not get to go to the competition.

Actually, 20 members to me is a medium size team. I agree with the other responses posted here that being on a FRC team requires a significant personal commitment in order to get a robot designed and built in six weeks. It sounds like some of your students might be there on the team just to check a box. I would address the situation in your next team meeting.

We have 8-12 students on the payroll each year, but what has worked well for us is to increase the number of dedicated students from 3-4 to 7-8. Once you get above a half dozen dedicated, fully involved students, things run more smoothly. We did this by having students sign in and using their attendance, in part, to determine who gets to do what, both in the shop and at competitions. When students see a reward for giving up other things for time at robotics, they start to take it more seriously. When the student who comes one day a week has the same privileges and rights as the students who come every day, there is little incentive to put in more time.

I agree that you can ask people to choose. And those who make the choice for robotics become your main team. The others get secondary roles, enough to keep them involved a bit and possibly inspire them to choose robotics in future years.

Because of our small size, we don’t have sub-teams. Every student on our team could do most any job, just to a greater or lesser extent based on their experience. I kind of like that the size of our team creates that dynamic.

16 students here. Every student is responsible for one part of the process for one subsystem. The image below (with names hastily scribbled out) shows our “hierarchy”, such as it is.

We have 18 scheduled meeting hours each week and every student is required to attend 80%. We make reasonable allowances for special circumstances and individuals are welcome to schedule independent work time to remain in good standing.

On our team it’s important that everybody contribute approximately equally, a philosophy that doesn’t work for everybody but works for us. If everybody on our small-ish team pulls their own weight, we can get a lot done together.


On my team, we have about 20 students and 12 mentors. The mentors really try to help the students get involved. Our team is about 50/50 girls to boys. Most of the girls (about 7-8) usually do the more spirit things and awards and essays. The boys are more involved with the building and testing of the robot, but we make decisions with the whole team.

As to scheduling conflicts, my team has our meetings after most sports and activities finish in the day. So football (for example) practice usually ends at 530, and our meetings don’t officially start until 6.

This helps us not have too many conflicts with outside activities. It’s difficult, because some parents don’t like trekking to the school at 9 pm to pick up their child from an activity, but we make it work. :slight_smile:

Can I get on this payroll too?

For our team to help with the people who can’t make it on certain days, we have a sub-team lead and alternate. The other teams are also doubled up so students are on 2 teams, with a primary and secondary team that they can switch between depending on how many people show up.

So I’ve worked with 80+ member teams, to tiny ones. One of my current teams which has about 13 members on paper, but with Mid-terms looming for the last week has really been about 5 people that we can expect to show up. Its a challenge to manage no matter what, you have 6 weeks to build.

The trick with both big and small teams is prioritization. Whats most important to work on at any given moment? Ok, so you hit a roadblock, those are normal, pick up a different issue and we can come back to the other one, but we need to keep moving forward today.

Earlier this season, we had a Saturday work session and one of the mentors wanted to have a big team strategy discussion, we actually had to say no, lets do that on Monday because we needed the extended work session to get the kitbot wired, programmed and driving with the extended time we had. Bigger teams could have easily done both at the same time with proper guidance, but when you are a small team you need to be able to say what is most important at any given moment.

The second biggest trick with a small team is to divide and conquer, and don’t get bogged down into roles. Everyone helps on everything, its a fact of life.

But remember, at the end of the day you’ll have a fantastic experience no matter what, you’ll learn something cool and you can make it your own.

I understand and agree with this but I’m guessing that the OP’s situation is such that, if they imposed this restriction then their team would drop to about 4 or 5 students. That is a problem that I don’t yet know how to solve. Plenty of teams (including mine) do put a minimum hours requirement and a fundraising effort requirement on students for them to attend events/competitions but requiring the same for a student to stay on the team would often mean that your team size could drop by 80%.

In addition to that, there is no way I would have stayed with my high school if such requirements were imposed. FIRST has been one of the biggest contributes to what career I chose and where I am in life now and I would hate to think that ‘young Mono’ would have chosen to give up on Robotics because other clubs and sports teams were taking too much of my time. Just food for thought.

I would recommend you only give important responsibilities to the members that are regularly there and those that have other commitments should be there to help when they can. Basically no matter how experienced your current leads may be, it’s better to give the job to someone who is around all the time than to a seasoned veteran who is hardly there.

For us it was changing the mentality from a “club” to a “competition team”. We are a student led team. The students set attendance requirements in order to attend regionals paid for by the booster club. If you don’t meet the requirements to go, then you must pay your own way and sit in the stands for the entire event. Those hours count penalty free against the total requirement for attending future events.

We had our team number drop by about 70% when we instituted this policy. On the other hand, the kids who stayed really stayed. During build season we meet 7 days a week. We are also building from the bottom up taking the long view by doing a ton of outreach to the lower grades and levels through FLL, FTC, and weekend lego camps.

To be honest I would much rather have 10 super dedicated members than 20 who come and go as they please. :frowning:

Sorry to hear about another team where some of the kids just don’t “get it”. Best of luck to you.


It sounds like the issue is less about managing the team and more about managing expectations. As the OP stated, when you don’t have people there you don’t get much done.

So, how to get people there?

While every team is different, I personally think it’s important to recognize what the program is all about - it’s not about winning a robotics competition, it’s about inspiration (with the competition being the means we use to help us inspire). For that reason, we don’t have required hours. We don’t kick people off the team. If they show up once a week, we do what we can to inspire them and help them understand what STEM and Engineering is all about.

We do, however, provide incentives for showing up. Students need 50% attendance to travel with the team, based on the originally published schedule (deviations from the schedule due to snow days or last minute work are generally held in the students favor - if the team cancells a meeting, the denominator goes down, and if there are extra meetings they can be used as extra credit). Further, students have to achieve 80% attendance to letter, among other requirements. Those incentives alone are enough that we’ve only ever kept a couple of students from travelling with the team, and almost all students letter after their second year (not eligible their first year).

One thing that is important is the timing of your meetings. Many (most?) activities happen right after school and run until dinner time. We meet later in the evening, from 7-9 (necessary so the mentors can get there after work and a fast dinner). This drastically reduces the conflicts we have with other activities during the week. Some students will come to the robotics meeting straight from practice for another sport, cramming down a packed dinner as we get started. Other students who don’t have another activity will hang out in the school working on homework, and arrange dinners as needed. Some, of course, go home after school and come back later for the meeting.

Finally, when you have a schedule set at the beginning of the season, ask the kids to indicate approximate expected attendance. Hopefully, they’ll know what activities they have that will conflict, and can provide you with the appropriate expectations. Then when your planning strategy and robot Design, keep those estimates in mind to pull th hem back from an “everything” not to one that you can accomplish with your resources and time. After a year or two of telling them " we don’t have enough person-hours to do as much as you want", they’ll get the message and help change the culture of the team from within to get more dedication and commitment.

The other system I can think of is mandatory hours of commitment to the team. This is by far one of the biggest and most important events for a robotics team (IMHO) so it should be top priority. I know a lot of teams start with the foot in this and then inch forward. Remind the students that actual cash money is going into this and that without the appropriate work to utilize all the money put in the money won’t be there next year, and instead of working on robots you will be working on fund raising.
Also if your team Leads aren’t reliable maybe they shouldn’t be leads.
You absolutely can ask if they choose between robotics or another club because other clubs will ask the same students to choose as well. So its fair game to me and in the end that is how the real world works, when you join the workforce you are committed to something and you can’t really drop that for other responsibilities.
Few questions I have
May I ask what your building access looks like?
What times do you normally meet?
How do you divide people up?
Whats up with your mentors how are they doing?
Can you work remotely through things like Skype and Google Hangouts?
Why does this other organization need 10 people every week that seems to be a lot of man (or woman) power?
Do you set goals for days and really push for them to get done or do you enforce they get done?

If you want to create a strong, diverse team - learn to work with and around the kids, their schedules, and other activities. If you want to compete against football, basketball, wrestling, hockey, gymnastics for team members, good luck.

FRC 4607 wants the best kids in the school. When we started the program in 2013, all of the 24 students were involved in other activities I believe of the 50 we have now, all but 5 are in other activities). We have created a balance at Becker where we have set times that we expect all team members to attend (Large Group Meetings). Then each squad lays out when and how long they meet during the other 4 days of the week. Saturday build days are expected that students are here (some have conflicts that we work around).

Just my two cents…

My first year of doing FIRST in 2013, our team consisted of about 8 members. It was quite difficult for us to get anything done as we didn’t have enough hands for the job. Our team has grown since then to a whopping 20 members! We have our Teacher sponsor, 4 mentors from Emerson, a mentor from Raytheon, and 2 team captains, another member and myself. It is quite difficult to manage our team but we found splitting the team into 2 different teams, 1 for build, 1 for programming/cad/business works very well! We use 1 of our captains to monitor Programming, and the other to monitor the build team.

Hi again,

First of all, thank you guys for the advice. It’s nice to see so many teams willing to help out a team that is still growing.

However, I have a couple of clarification statements about my team. First, my school actually only consists of about 150 students. We cap each grade at 60 but people have left without replacements. About half participate in clubs and sports and thus, many students cross over between clubs. With a relatively small number of students, no club ever asks their students to choose. They choose to work around schedules instead. Only one club ever meets on a day and during the off season, attendance is high since robotics occupies Wednesday and we only meet that one day a week. When build season hits, Wednesday is still the highest day but people are out other days to attend their clubs. Maybe my wording in the initial post was harsh or misinterpreted but we do have decent dedication. Our rule is you attend your other commitment first, and since robotics lasts longer than other clubs, you can come to robotics late. The “little work” that I mentioned only happens at the point when the two clubs overlap. Once everybody is bakc in the same room, productivity goes up. We do have people though that come and stay the entire time after school and these people get lead roles since they are the most dedicated. We have talked to the lead I mentioned in the OP and they have started to attend more regularly now that basketball season is over. Other people also picked up the slack and that team is moving again.

When people show up, even if it is late, they do put in the effort. It actually happens that the people with other commitments work harder than those that stay because they feel they have to make up the time. Every member in the club knows that robotics is a lot of work and knowing everyone’s schedule, we usually keep our robot minimal. We sometimes feel it is better to have one super component than three or four “eh” components. By keeping the goals manageable, we can still have fun, make something we are proud of and everyone can manage their responsibilities.

As for accountability, our advisor recently created a contract stating that in order to be in the club, you must pay a fee and put in the effort. At his discretion, he can remove anybody from the day’s meeting or the team(which has never happened) and their money will not be refunded. As our cost is $95, people have a bit of an incentive to work when they are in the club. With the regional, we never bar anyone as everyone does put the effort in when they can. That being said, the drive team only consists of people who have put the most effort in.

As I said, maybe my OP was considered harsh or I worded it wrong but the problem is not as bad as I made it sound. I was only wondering if there would be a way to continue moving along at a steady pace and not lose steam while still allowing everyone to honor their other commitments. After reading everyone’s posts, it appears that we have been following some of the ideas posted all along. We have a core dedicated group and every member helps out whenever they can. We don’t bite off more than we can chew and are still able to create some amazing robots.

Once again, thank you for the advice and best of luck to all teams.

I believe that 20 kids is about the perfect size for an frc team (maybe even less than that) Iv worked on a team of 60 kids, and currently on a team of around 15. I can honestly say that with out a doubt, I have gotten more out of a smaller team. It’s just like a classroom, it is easier to learn in a smaller class. With more kids it becomes difficult to keep all hands on the robot. Having a 15 kid team with 15 committed minds will get more done than a team of 60 with 5 committed minds any day. What it really comes down to is that you get out of it what you put in. That is the difficulty. In order to have a successful small team, you really need to have all hands on deck. One thing I will say is that students (from my experience) are more motivated to work for a smaller team. You have a greater sense of pride and accomplishment when seeing the finished product.