Successful Team Start Up

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What problems have you had with project teams? Here are some common ones: vaguely defined goals, members who don’t do their share of the work, unrealistic schedules and deadlines, changing expectations from higher management, disorganized and unproductive discussions, members who are in constant conflict . . . any of that sound familiar? Many project teams fail because they don’t take some critical steps at the beginning of their task.

Here is a process that can help to get your project team off to a successful start. Depending upon your specific circumstances, the steps listed may occur in a different order.

A. Clarify Purpose and Goals

Clearly identify the Sponsor for your project. Sometimes teams start to work with just a vague mandate from “above”. That’s why every project must have a Sponsor, who is typically not a member of the team. Even if many higher-level people are interested in a project, the team still needs one specific person to go to for guidance and information. That person must be someone who has an interest in the project and enough authority to approve or veto critical decisions. Here’s a question to consider in identifying the Sponsor: who will determine whether the project has been successful? The Sponsor should either be that person or someone close to that person.

Discuss expectations with the Sponsor. At the beginning of a project, the leader – or the whole group, if it is a leaderless team – should meet with the Sponsor to be sure that expectations are understood. They should agree on the purpose of the team, guidelines for selecting members, and criteria that will be used to evaluate success. The Sponsor should attend the first or second team meeting to help kick off the project, answer any questions, and clarify expectations.

Define “success” in the team’s charter. A written charter should be created which includes the purpose, goals, and expected outcomes of the team’s work. It is often helpful to outline what is “in scope” for the project and what is “out of scope”. This draft should be reviewed by the Sponsor, then discussed at the first team meeting. Once specific expectations are agreed upon (see section C), they should be added to the charter. Copies of the final charter should be given to all team members and the Sponsor. “Success” for the team is defined as fulfilling expectations outlined in the charter.

Useful Questions
Who is the Sponsor of this project?
What is the overall purpose of this project?
What specific goals is this group expected to accomplish?
What is within the scope of this project and what is not?
What outcome measures will be used to determine success?

B. Create the Team

Select team members. Create a team that will maximize your chances of success. For many projects, both a “Core Team” and an “Expanded Team” are needed. The Core Team is made up of people who are critical to accomplishing team goals and whose presence will be needed at all project meetings. Expanded Team members are those whose expertise is needed only at specific stages of the project – for example, legal advice may only be required at certain points, so a lawyer should not have to attend every meeting. Members of the Expanded Team should be informed about the project and the part they are expected to play. They are included in meetings as needed.

Get necessary commitments. The leader and/or Sponsor should talk with each team member in advance about why they are important to the team and what will be expected of them. The amount of time required by the project should be clearly explained. If a team member does not have sufficient time or interest, another selection may need to be made.

Useful Questions
Whose participation is critical to the project’s success?
What functions, levels, or groups should be represented on the team?
Who needs to attend all project meetings?
Whose expertise will be needed only at certain points?
Are all team members clear about what will be needed from them?

C. Establish Expectations

Determine the “products” to be produced by the team. In addition to having clear goals, project teams also need to be specific about the tangible “products” to be produced, sometimes referred to as “deliverables”. These may include reports, documents, analyses, presentations, forms, and so forth. Agreement about deliverables should be reached with the Sponsor, then added to the Charter.

Clarify schedules and timelines. Tension often exists between higher level management and project teams about how long the work will take. Agreement about schedules should also be reached with the Sponsor and added to the Charter.

Determine level of authority. Identify the decisions that the team needs to make and the resources (financial, human, or otherwise) required to achieve project goals. If necessary, get approval for decision-making authority from the Sponsor. The team should clearly understand which decisions can be made by the group and which need to be approved by the Sponsor. Consult the Sponsor at the beginning of the project about any critical resource issues. Add additional information to the Charter as needed.

Define ground rules. At an early meeting, the team should agree on “ground rules” for working together productively. These guidelines can include such things as starting meetings on time, sharing information, listening to others, ending meetings with action steps, following through with commitments, etc. The ground rules should be written up and a copy given to each member. Periodically, the team should spend five or ten minutes at the end of a meeting evaluating how well the ground rules are being followed.

Useful Questions
What decisions are we authorized to make? What additional authority do we need?
When are we expected to consult the Sponsor before making a decision?
What resources (money, people, etc.) do we need access to?
What is the final completion date for this project?
When are specific interim milestones expected to be reached?
What agreements do we want to make about how we will work together?

D. Build Relationships

Discuss team member work styles. Many conflicts on a team arise from the fact that members simply have “built in” differences about how they approach problems or situations. Identifying these work style differences up front can avoid a lot of problems later on. Either use a standard survey (MBTI, DISC, etc.) to identify individual styles or simply have team members discuss how they prefer to work. (Handouts from can be used for this purpose, including “What Role Do You Take on a Team” and “Understanding Work Style Differences”.) Reach agreements about how people with different styles will accommodate one another.

Define the “team personality”. The combination of individual styles will create strengths and weaknesses for the team as a whole. Consider how this combination of work styles may affect decision making, information sharing, leadership, conflict resolution, etc. Discuss how to maximize strengths and compensate for weaknesses.

Discuss individual needs, hopes, and concerns. Let each team member express their personal views of the project. This often points up potential issues that had not previously been considered. Any concerns about what will be expected can be addressed at this point. But this discussion should also include positive perceptions about what can be accomplished by the team. Focusing only on the negative will definitely not be motivational!

Useful Questions
What is this group likely to agree or disagree about?
What conflicts might be predicted by our work styles?
What are our natural strengths and weaknesses as a group?
How do we compensate for those?
What excites each person about this project? What concerns do they have?

E. Get to Work!

Create an initial action plan. Agree on the overall approach to the project and the first steps to be taken. A general plan should be outlined for taking the project to completion, breaking the project into phases. Specific action steps should only be outlined for Phase 1, as the outcome of the first phase usually affects planning for the second. Developing detailed plans for the entire project at the beginning usually just wastes time.

Agree on feedback points. In the plan, identify the points at which feedback needs to be given to the Sponsor. Agree with the Sponsor about the type of feedback that would be helpful.

Implement the plan. Once you have gone through the Successful Start-Up Process, implementing the plan will be much easier!

Useful Questions
What are the major phases of the project?
What specific action steps should be in Phase 1?
When should we give feedback about progress to the Sponsor?
What will the Sponsor want to know about?
What do we need to do first?