Small Team Tactics

Simple and light equals freedom, agility and mobility

Note: A better more complete version of this post has been published on ITS Tactical

I believe in being nimble. Being small and light allows you to move and act faster, more fluently. Being light allows you to be more efficient.

You don’t need a big team to be successful. You need the right team for that. The right people can perform at a higher level and be tasked with multiple things. Having a small team means it can adapt faster, that momentum can be stopped if necessary: if a 180 degree plan B needs to be executed then the team will not be crashed. Big teams committed to a plan are harder to adapt. Their weight alone will make this almost impossible. Think about SOF teams, they are small and agile. There is a reason for that.

SOF teams, world wide, tend to be small, autonomous, and self reliant. Because of this they can operate at much higher level. Each team member providing valuable insight into his or her area of expertise.

A good team has to be small and smart. The mindset of the team also had to be geared toward this. It should have an adaptive mindset.

Think about Rule 9: "A simple plan with a flexible blueprint will survive real world contact far better than a complex and rule-bound plan."

This should be applied in all levels, from the planning, to the execution. Every plan should be simple enough that it would allow a quick change on the fly based on the environment, based on what’s on the field. No plan survives the first contact with the enemy and a good team needs this flexibility in order to change. If your team stays small and flexible, it will also reduce the resistant to change, to adapt.

A small team, comprised of the right people, communicates better, acts and reacts smoother and provides cleaner ideas.

Leveraging the team strength

The first thing to know, to understand, is the individuals that comprise your team. It is a team, but without its members a team is not much of anything.

Each member in the team has his or her own strengths. It is the job of each and every team member to know the rest of the team mates and to know who can do what and under what situation. It is also crucial to know how do each of the members perform when it counts, under stress, without sleep or when time is really tight. People tend to act differently when they are in a team environment than when they work solo. Can they handle it? Can they take criticism? Can they give it?

Each member has a specific strength. One member might have a better touch when dealing with people, while another member might have infinite patience and could sit in front of a list of hex numbers for hours while reverse engineering a piece of software. Another member can fix anything, regardless of what it is. Just a few examples. Often these strengths have to do with what they are trained in or previous experiences, however a lot of times this is just natural talent. Discovering these talents during the initial interview with a member or while on a project is critical for the team to evolve, to become better. Sure, a lot of times junior guys benefit a lot from being paired with a senior member on specific projects, however sometimes the other way around is true. Sometimes a junior guy can bring a lot to the table and senior members need to work under them. It keeps the team constantly learning, constantly fresh.

You have to really know your team mates in order to do this.

One way of doing this, of getting to know each member, is to put the person that might be best suitable to lead a particular project or operation, in charge of planning. Pay attention to the other members, can anyone think differently on that specific subject matter? Maybe there is someone that you thought had no knowledge of this specific subject but here he is, taking the expert for a ride. Maybe his talent resides in pocking holes on a plan, he can become then the contingency guy. You would be surprised of the results you can get with these exercises. Not to mention that it builds the team.

Play with this. Have your team assess itself.


Adapt. That’s the name of the game. What worked once will not necessarily work twice. Use proactive failure analysis. Essentially, you have to methodically discard the plans, possible solutions and schemas that would likely fail based on the analysis of the problem at hand. This works particularly well in small teams, when the plan has to be perfect. There aren't many resources on a small team.

After collecting as much intelligence as you can, after you have performed recon and observed your target, either physical or digital, you then can red team your own solutions. You use proactive failure analysis to discard the solutions that might fail based on the intelligence you just collected. You then adapt the remaining solutions to this same intelligence and prepare the main, contingency and emergency plans.

This same technique is used by attackers. They adapt based on their failed attacks, they analyze what happened and factor this into their future attack plans.

When in Doubt, Develop the Situation.

"Developing the situation is the common-sense approach to dealing with complexity. Both a method and a mind-set, it uses time and our minds to actively build context, so that we can recognize patterns, discover options, and master the future as it unfolds in front of us" (Pete Blaber, The Mission, The Men and Me, 2008)

In any new situation, common sense and / or the Red Team Mindset should be used. It is important to recognize patterns, discover possible alternatives and options, prepare the different solutions based on the analysis. Developing the situation means innovation and new approaches, new options instead of using the defaults. A team can truly come together and pour the different ideas based on the intel from the ground, or based on pass experienced.

The best information is real-time situational awareness based on what is actually happening on the ground right now. In order to this, you have to be open to new ideas. Once you have information flowing from the field (by a team member or by direct collection) you can begin to get a context of what is going on. You can begin to put the pieces together and plan accordingly. It is important that each team member have a saying in the planning phase. This is key on small teams. Each member has his/her own interpretation of the information and these different views can provide the next level in developing the situation. Hear what each member has to say about the developing issues. Have them state a plan of action and poke holes on your own plan.

Develop the situation.

A parting thought

Problems will arise on a small team. There is no way around it. However keep in mind that sometimes these problems have a reason.

If you have the same problem for a long time, maybe it’s not a problem—it’s a fact” (Yitzhak Rabin)

Take a step back, analyze this and continue forward.