Starting up a new team is a fundamental step towards fostering teams that work well together. Sounds obvious, right? However, it is an often overlooked or forgotten step, meaning that teams go head-first in the work to be done rather than thinking about how they would like to work together as a team.
This post will address one way of starting up a new team (aka team lift-off or kick-off). This applies to teams who will work on a dedicated project or product, or even teams that have already worked together. I have separated the kick-off into five different building blocks:
- What’s our purpose?
- Meet the people
- Know your process
- The rules of the game
- Inspect and adapt
This format has been tried, tested and iterated. However, it is important that you tailor your kick-off based on the team’s needs. In order to gauge what level to pitch your kick-off, observe the team’s dynamics and their interactions with the wider organisation and ask individual team members beforehand whether they have any expectations, hopes or concerns for the session and build your activities around them.
Investing a short time at the beginning of an initiative to agree on things such as the values and behaviours we want to see in our team has a huge pay off. For example, agreeing upfront about how we want to be together in conflict as opposed to letting tension build up or explode allows us to navigate everyday communication in a more open and respectful manner.
Fear of conflict is one root cause of dysfunction within a team. In their book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, Patrick Lencioni describes common pitfalls faced by teams as they seek to grow together. Absence of trust, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results are the other four root causes classified by Lencioni. Albeit a simplistic model, these dysfunctions highlight problems that can be better navigated if a team takes time to intently think about how they work together.
How to get started
As mentioned, gather as much insight from team members to create a kick-off that is relevant for the team and will set them on the right track. Investing time for this is important as it sends out a message to the team and the rest of the organisation that you are serious about helping this team succeed.
Depending on the team’s needs, the session can be run in a couple of hours, one day or spread over a couple of days. The important thing is that you give the team enough time to have fruitful conversations that lead them to think about how they want to work as a team and the first steps they can take towards this. Give the session enough time and space — don’t cram too much in but make sure you keep the session energetic so people’s attention and engagement stay in the room.
Be clear not only about the outcomes for the session, but set the team up for success by painting a picture of what a great team could look like. You might want to mention ShuHaRi, Tuckman’s stages of group development (forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning) or insights from studies on what makes successful teams, such as the one carried out by Google, to illustrate the path they’re embarking on.
Once you have put a plan together for the session, share it with the team. Ask for feedback on whether they think it meets their expectations. Get them involved in their team formation from the very beginning.
1. What’s our purpose?
This session is an opportunity to think about the team’s development and what they want to become together. For this, Lyssa Adkins, in the book “Coaching Agile Teams”, suggests asking: “What’s in it for us as a team?”. This is different to setting the product or project vision or looking at the work you’ll be doing together (this can be achieved in a separate session).
After summarising the team’s intent, probe into individual motivations by asking team members what they want out of being in this team; this can be an accomplishment, a skill, or anything else they can think of.
These two questions are a great opportunity to set the scene, and you can refer back to them in the following building blocks.
2. Meet the people
This section goes further into building relationships between the team and starts to form a collective identity, hopefully with a bit of fun!
Through team building activities, you can get to know your colleagues on a more personal level. This doesn’t mean that trust will be established from the onset, but it is a good way of laying a foundation for trust and respect.
There are many activities you can draw from, here are some of my favourites:
If you want to conduct a similar activity like the ones mentioned above but don’t have as much time, I’ve created the prompt below. It gets the team thinking not only about their roles and responsibilities, but also what they bring to and need from their team.
“My name is ____. I am a ____. One interesting/random fact about me is ____. On this team, I am responsible for ____. Two skills I offer to the team are ____ and ____. In order to do my best work, I need from my team ____. and ____. The way I like to receive feedback is ____.”
You can keep the interesting fact for later and anonymise them so the team members need to guess who the statement belongs to!
Use your creativity to tweak existing activities or try using Lego Serious Play to create your own. Choose activities that bring forward skills and interesting facts… I’ve even included a Desert Island Discs section to my User Manual for Me so that the team has a playlist once they’re finished with the session!
3. Know your process
If, like me, you work with Agile teams, this is the moment in which you can revisit the Agile values and principles. If your team is already familiar with this way of working, just give them a speedy tour through the main concepts so that the team shares a common language. If the team is new to Agile, consider conducting a separate workshop to take them through it in more details, perhaps using Agile simulation games.
This part of the session aims to get agreement on ways of working and general logistics. This could include the frequency and time of each meeting to when, where and how to document our work.
Review the meetings, forums and tools you share as a team to understand their “what” and “why” alongside establishing what the team expect from each team member in each meeting. Also look into the team members’ working patterns, as it important to understand this from the start. This is a great opportunity for the facilitator to provide just enough guidance and take a step back to let the team lead this activity as this needs to work for them, not you.
Make sure to document the outputs and keep them somewhere visible so the team can revisit them frequently.
4. The rules of the game
Establishing the rules of the game for the team involve thinking about the behaviours they want to see and embody together. A working agreement defines what the team should hold each other accountable for.
There are many variations of how you can create a team charter. I usually start off by referring to the answers the team came up with when I asked “What’s in it for us as a team?”, or simply asking “what is a team?” — this is helpful to establish an aim to work towards together.
I then ask the team to list characteristics of unsuccessful teams. This helps the team to pinpoint potential downfalls or blockers to successful teamwork. I have found that teams are very good at coming up with lots of answers for this!
Only after asking the above questions is when I then ask: “What can make our team successful?”. I find at this point that our brain juices are flowing and are better at thinking outside the box. I prompt the team by asking them to think about:
- situations in which we interact and collaborate
- positive behaviours we want to see
- things that are working well and we want to keep up
- things that we can improve
- how we want to be perceived by stakeholders and other teams
- how we will call out conflict in the moment
- how we use our tools
Once the team has brainstormed as many ideas as possible, we briefly discuss the ideas and group them by theme. I then invite the team to walk around the wall and have a look at what the team has come up with. I ask each team member to pick one post-it or theme and give them some time to formulate their proposal. Jimmy Janlén, when writing about bootstrapping working agreements for teams, suggests that you ask three simple yet powerful questions when the team members present their proposals back to the group:
1. If we vote for this and honour it, can you give me examples of what that would look like? What would I be able to see with my eyes?
2. If we fail to honour this, what would that look like?
3. If we evaluate our ability to honour this working agreement two months from now, would we be able to evaluate whether we are respecting this bullet? How would we do that?
The team then vote on whether it is a proposal they would like to include in their charter. If the team wants to present more than one proposal, go through another round but be mindful not to over-populate the charter, or the team won’t remember all of it! You can save the remaining proposals and revisit them at another time.
If you have time and want to take it a step further, get creative and ask the team to wrap up all the activities of the session by creating a team poster to present themselves to other teams and the wider organisation. You can use magazines, memes, Lego sculptures — anything that will help the team creatively articulate who they are as a team. Keep it somewhere visible once you’re finished. And why not create a team name to go with that?!
Before you finish this session, rehash the agreements the team have made together. Gauge the team’s confidence in holding each other accountable; this can be done through a quick exit retro using smileys, voting with numbers, or even using a constellation format.
5. Inspect and adapt
The team charter and ways of working agreements are living documents and as such should be revisited by the team regularly.
A couple of weeks (or sprints) after the session, hold a retrospective for the team to inspect their team charter — the same can be done with the ways of working agreements the team have made. Use a team radar activity to visualise where the team believe they are doing well and in what aspects they can improve.
In the subsequent months, revisit all or specific parts of the team’s agreements and vision so that it is at the forefront of their minds and they are frequently adapting their ways of working as they grow through the stages of team development.