Deliberate Team Formation Sets Projects Up for Success

becoming a team 2
Organizations around the world will spend $US3,300 per hire (Forbes, 2013) on recruiting yet spend just a few hundred dollars, a small fraction, on the equally important task of setting up their teams for success.

Mostly the on-boarding process focuses on socializing people into an organization’s, culture, learning “how we do things around here”. But often the process requires the new arrival to adopt the organization’s identity while downplaying their own, which can be “psychologically depleting” (Cable, Gino & Staats, 2013).

This “don’t rock the boat” approach may be ideal for firms in slow moving backwaters of the world economy, but in a rapidly changing world it is an organization replenishment opportunity foregone.

New, more mobile arrivals, whose average time in a job is now 4.6 years, bring to an organization a rich diversity of cultural knowledge, mental models and experiences. They are often better able to work across ever-evolving or transforming boundaries than incumbents who have been at the firm for many years. Their adaptability skills may as valuable to their new firm, as the skills for which they have been hired.

The problem is most acute in the world of complex project management, where innovation, change and increasing complexity is the order of the day. Projects, by their nature, occur at the pointy end of the economy, where new systems are developed that are often so leading edge, the details are not fully worked out until the contract has been awarded and implementation is underway.

In a way, starting a project is like recruiting a band of mercenaries. Project people are used to working in temporary organisations for short term assignments. They also know disruptive change, because when their work is done, they are often rewarded by losing their jobs, until the next project comes along.

So how do you socialize the engineers and technologists who design and implement new projects, who are expected to be very adaptable and flexible, but also be perfectionists, to guarantee the system they build will work, not just reliably, but without harming anyone?

Another challenge is to create the infrastructure, system, technologies or tools which will serve a useful purpose for not only the current way we do things, but for the next 30-50 years. On time, on-budget and fit for the purpose.

This means that the leadership of complex projects often must recruit a mix of talents that are on the one hand creative and daring and on the other very conservative or risk averse. They include introverts such as programmers and extroverts such as team leaders plus a handful of cowboys and geeks. They come from a diverse variety of disciplines, in order to create new systems with many moving parts, often made or built in a wide variety of locations, remote from each other, anywhere in the world.

Add to this potentially difficult mix, accelerating knowledge creation and implementation, and growing complexity and you have what could easily turn into a conflict and contradiction nightmare.

To make matters worse, some project teams just jump straight into the work because they are focused on getting results. Others party until the cows come home, and cant get started until they have a perfect solution that solves everyone’s problems.. Kumbaya on steroids.

Our recipe for success is a balance between results AND relationships. 

On day one, get to know one another, and build systemic connections across the team. Then and only then do we engage in an initial round of strategic planning to clarify the purpose of the project/program, develop shared goals and a create a plan of action.

Workshop

Here’s a workshop to help a team prepare for success:

1. Warm-up: In 25 words or more, tell us the story of the most amazing, crazy or dangerous thing you have ever done. What you learned from the experience?
2. Passions: In 25-words or more, what are your excited or passionate about?
3. Life story: What’s the story of your life? Name of the movie and the plot.
4. Your interests: Why did you join the team? What do you hope to get out of the project if it is very successful?
5. Skills and tools: What skills, methods, tools etc. do you bring to the project and how could they contribute to its success?
6. Biggest issues you have faced: Give an example of a big issue or challenge that you have had to deal with in your work/life that you would really like to have better answers for in the future.
7. Helping others: Thinking about all the other members of the team and their interests, and the challenges or issues they face, who could you help and what could you do to help them?

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