How to kick-off a cross-functional project
Ingredients for a rewarding on-site workshop in a distributed world
Preparing a project is intimidating when a group meets, for the first time, to solve a unique problem. I was asked to help kick-off a project that spans multiple development sites and various functional areas. We ran an on-site workshop with 15 people to get us started. I would like to give you some insights into our approach and ideas which might work for you as well.
“I think that is a good best practice template as we looking into similar problems.”
The goal of the project was precise and measurable from the beginning: Raise the quality the customer perceives, based on Net Promoter Score (NPS) as our core metric.
My task was to form a group of relevant people, organize a workshop, and compile a plan in order to meet the project goal.
We discussed ideas on the best format for a workshop, but it was immediately apparent that each of us had conflicting opinions on what the workshop outcome should be.
Instead of deciding ourselves about what a good outcome would be, I went back to my key stakeholders for guidance. After several iterations with them, we agreed on a concise workshop outcome: Create a proposal with execution options on how to achieve the quality goal. Provide insight into the implementation effort and impact on quality.
“Does the option to join the workshop as a silent observer exist? This sounds exciting…”
Additionally, we wrote down why this project is important for our business. With no room left for interpretation, it is easy to get people thrilled about the opportunity to influence how we improve NPS. I documented the motivation for our workshop, our goals, an initial list of attendees, and a rough agenda.
I cared a lot about finding the minimal number of workshop attendees to cover all relevant perspectives. Besides various engineering groups, I tried to include people from product management, user experience, sales, and customer care. This was challenging, and I learned a lot about how other departments are organized.
Unfortunately, I announced the workshop a bit last-minute to a broader audience, but luckily most participants were available. I recommend announcing important workshops as early as possible in order to identify key participants. In this context, it has been helpful to reach out to the innovation team, a group that is very good in thinking out of the box and connecting the sometimes siloed functional areas.
The workshop participants were tackling unchartered territory, and since many participants hadn’t met before, it was imperative to keep the team engaged from the beginning.
I shared a proposed agenda and opened the conversation in Slack. Creating the Slack group was not sufficient for sparking an initial discussion, due to the fact that all participants are extremely busy. From an organizer’s perspective this was challenging because I had absolutely no clue how many ideas I should expect during the workshop.
Therefore, I asked the various groups to add their input to a shared slide deck that supports collaborative editing. In the beginning, the slide deck only contained some templates and high-level structure to provide room for each functional group.
We collaboratively extended the slide deck, and views from customer care, user experience, several development teams, and quality engineering experts were stored in a single place. With a clear call to action, the approaching workshop in mind, and some peer pressure we collected both customers pains, and solutions. More importantly, the content was ready to be used directly during the workshop.
All-in-all we completed the slide deck with upwards of 100 slides and we did not need any large group meeting to accomplish that. As a result of the preparation, almost every participant was invested in the workshop.
A workshop is a great opportunity to strengthen your facilitation skills. While I would have loved to be the master of ceremony, I realized that this would introduce a significant risk to the overall success of our session. I planned to contribute to discussions and solutions. As a facilitator, you should be neutral and focused on the collaboration among the group members. Fortunately, I was able to win two experienced facilitators who also were awesome supporters throughout the preparation phase.
We started into the session by refreshing the goals and explaining the three major building blocks of our workshop:
- Develop a common understanding of the challenge and learn about our perspectives and ideas.
- Estimate effort and impact of ideas, then arrange them on a two-dimensional map of ideas.
- Compile an actionable proposal, and alternative options.
With everyone in a room, we took the time to have a quick introduction round with each participant’s name, office location, and job role. I recommend selecting icebreakers to get participants activated and excited for the workshop.
Each presentation was timeboxed to twenty minutes, even if this meant to drop some minor aspects. We printed all idea slides and placed them on a wall during the presentation phase. This allowed us to group similar ideas and eliminate duplicates. We were able to manage around 60 items and it was helpful that we numbered the ideas for convenient referencing on both paper and the slide deck.
Next, we split into subgroups. Each team tackled a subset of the ideas and estimated the impact on the product quality. We roughly sorted the items into three impact buckets: high, medium, low. Once each group was done, they presented the results, discussed and updated them with all participants. Afterward, we used the same approach to add rough effort estimations.
Finally, we merged all the items in a single place by arranging them on a wall along the two axes of impact and effort. We encouraged the participants to challenge the position of ideas and have discussions when needed. The matrix representation provides a solid foundation for discussions on the priority and gives a strong hint of what to address first: the high impact/low effort quadrant.
“How you weight impact and effort against each other is really cool.”
The third building block of the workshop, the creation of our actionable proposal, was quite specific to our challenge. The result was a ranked list of work packages to be addressed in the upcoming project. While a subgroup produced the first version it’s important to run the proposal by the entire group to ensure the outcome is approved and owned by all.
We had presentations, group work, controversial discussions, and breaks to allow for connecting and exchange of thoughts at the coffee machine. We used a wild mix of tools, flip charts, sticky notes, whiteboards, slides, and our facilitators made sure that our results were available as digital slides or spreadsheets immediately. Not surprisingly, the energy level in the room was the highest when our activities involved physical movement.
Most workshop activities worked well, although some were adapted on-the-fly and others were replaced completely. Listen to your participants, stay focused on the goal and be flexible!
Here’s our plan!
One day after the workshop, we presented the outcomes to our stakeholders. This is a great opportunity to share your thoughts with those who could not join in-person, and in general with people who will be impacted by the results. Tell your colleagues why you were hiding in a meeting room for one or two days and get them onboard with your ideas.
“I’m really happy to see the outcome.”
We gave an insight into our activities, showed a list of ranked ideas with expected impact, and came up with an actionable proposal. This turned out to be an excellent foundation for management to decide on the next steps.
Ingredients to a rewarding on-site workshop
- Work with your stakeholders to get clear objectives and the reasons why it’s important. Document and share them with the participants.
- Invite passionate people to an on-site workshop. Make sure to cover different perspectives.
- Make sure everybody is invested. Make it a collaborative effort by involving people upfront.
- Deliver an engaging workshop. Visual, focused and flexible. Enable all attendees to actively contribute.
- Share the results. Celebrate the outcomes and collaboration.
- Have a team outing to strengthen personal connections and foster smooth collaboration after your workshop.