It’s time to start that new project at work. You know, the project the CEO is talking about. The project that your future business is riding on. The project that you want to succeed, beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. The project that you’re responsible for leading.
What’s your first impulse? If you have a “big hairy audacious goal” (BHAG) to go after, then of course you have to start planning the big hairy audacious kickoff meeting (BHAKM).
You’ve been to one of these. The hand-picked team gets locked away in a big comfy room, preferably out of the office. The meeting starts with your boss’s boss’s boss explaining the extreme urgency of the project… for hours. By the end of the marathon day, everyone’s figured out what they need to get done—but deep inside, they’re freaking out because the finish line feels it’s a thousand kilometers away. They look around the room, at their new team members: Unknown quantities. No amount of craft kombucha or beer will wash away the anxiety.
You may need to facilitate one of these BHAKM’s for your team. In fact, your company’s culture may require it. But I’d like to ask that you try something a little different this time.
Have a kickoff before the kickoff.
This kickoff isn’t about the project. It’s about the people on your team.
Recent research like Google’s Project Aristotle has reinforced what great team leaders have known for some time: Open communication between team members, empathy and consideration for teammates, and an environment that reinforces psychological safety are what make workplace teams most successful. Project kickoff meetings aren’t always set up to support those aims. They help focus teams on… well… the project: What problems need to be solved, what success looks like, what work needs to be done, and so forth. In the end, it’s about work outcomes.
Behavioral patterns can be established at the start of any new team endeavor. The longer these behaviors persist, the harder it can be to replace them as you settle into a project.
I’ve led many of these meetings in professional practice at places like frog, and taught hundreds of designers at schools like CIID to facilitate them on project work. In most cases, I’ve seen that when a team has a kickoff in advance of the project, everyone on the team can:
- Get to know each other better as people as well as co-workers in their organization
- Start modeling behaviors like open communication before they are influenced by the various motivations and pressures that will happen in the project
- Start forming some opinions about how they can support each other through the project work
- Feel more comfortable sharing their opinions and informing the team about their needs
Here’s some tips on how to plan and facilitate a pre-kickoff meeting.
Contact the team and explain why you'll be having the meeting
Get in touch with your new team and let them know you’d like to gather them together before the formal kickoff. Your new team members need to know why you’re having this additional meeting, and that it’s focused on the team getting to know each other. I like to send along a few minutes of “homework” that asks team members to reflect on their current skills and interests, how they like to work on teams, and what they’re interested in learning as part of this new project. (I’ve got instructions on how to do this here.)
Make sure this pre-kickoff happens at least one day before the formal one. Your team should have time to process what they’ve learned about each other, conduct any necessary follow-up conversations, and prepare for the project kickoff. It’s likely they are still heads down working hard on other projects.
Start with an icebreaker that models open communication behaviors
Right from the start, conduct your initial activities in a way that requires team members to actively listen and share with each other.
Create equal time for each team member to share about themselves
After the icebreaker, conduct more formal introductions. Taking turns, let each person share a little bit about themselves. Consider having your team members answer questions like:
- What professional or job-related skills do you bring to this team?
- What skills do you have that you may not use in your role?
- What are your personal interests or hobbies?
- What makes you most comfortable when you are working with a team?
- What makes you most uncomfortable when working with a team?
- What do you want to learn while working on this team?
This will help you create space for team members to share their perspectives, and reinforce the importance of active listening when you’re working together.
Discuss what’s important to both the team and individual team members
After everyone has a chance to share what they’d prepared, then you can lead a group discussion about how team members want to work together. Common areas that I like to bring up are:
- When people want to be working
- Where they want to be working
- What types of communication channels they want to use, and expectations on when to receive a response
- When and how they like to work together versus working alone
- What they’re most interested in learning through the upcoming project
Create a first draft of your working values and norms
Separate of the pressures of the actual project, write up a list of provisional norms that supports what the team believes will help them be most successful. This gives the team a chance to discuss how they want to work together as people and as co-workers. Something that we’ve been doing regularly now with our teams is to create a charter with working values and behaviors, so the team knows how their norms will translate into specific things that they do from day to day. My partner Mary and I developed a simple tool to do this that is quick to use during these kinds of discussions.
Revisit your team values and norms regularly after the project kickoff
Values and norms aren’t static for teams, and things can shift rapidly after project work begins. After the project’s formal kickoff, and then at regular intervals—like during retrospectives—ask your team if they learned anything that caused them to rethink their working values and norms. Make sure you’re regularly realigning on these values and norms, so you can reinforce the kind of team culture you want to sustain.
We’ve seen people get habituated to these types of meetings, and assume that nothing’s changed since the last time they worked with those people. That’s not true, especially in fast-paced work environments, where you end up acquiring new skills, improving existing skills, and uncovering new interests that send you rapidly in different directions. People are always evolving, and their life circumstances can also change as well. So even if you’re working with some of the same team members from project to project, continue to conduct these pre-kickoff meetings. Just adapt the format to be more focused on what people have learned about themselves and working with each other, and what they’d like to change up for the next big initiative.
Pre-kickoff meetings are not about creating new friends. They are not therapy. They are about getting to know your teammates as people, and crafting a team environment for co-workers with open communication and deliberate collaboration. These are the teams we can always use more of in the workplace.