In this post, I’ll explore some of what the research says about creating great teams, and what you should include in your project kickoff as a result. At the end of the post you can download a PDF template for you to plan your next session.
If the future of work is about small, multidisciplinary and temporary teams (sometimes called The Hollywood Model) then knowing how to launch projects in the right way will be even more important. This way of working will require teams to align quickly and spring into action. The need for highly effective project kickoffs has never been greater.
Luckily, there’s increasing amounts of research available about what makes a great, creative and productive team, and you can use this to structure a successful kickoff session. It’s all about tapping into the expertise of the team and creating a good plan for how you’re going to work together.
Here is an outline for what to cover in your project kickoff:
1. Set the context
Before you get into the core of the session, set the context. Provide an overview of the project, who is on the team and any constraints or other factors to bear in mind. Keep this short so that you can move quickly into a more interactive format. The team can give brief introductions, especially if they’ve never met before. But save more detailed introductions for later when the team has warmed up a bit. This way they can introduce themselves within the perspective of the project.
2. Explore the brief
One aim of a good project kickoff is to build motivation in the team. In her influential piece for Harvard Business Review “How To Kill Creativity“, Teresa Amabile identified that the best way to motivate people that do creative work is to appeal to their intrinsic motivation. Later in his book “Drive”, Dan Pink outlined that intrinsic motivation has three main components: autonomy (people have control over the way they work), mastery (the have just the right amount of challenge) and purpose (they feel that they are working towards something bigger).
Start your session by fostering your team’s connection to the project. Do this by helping them to see the bigger picture and delve deeper into the problem. You can ask them them about the initial questions or concerns they may have, and what they think needs to be explored further. The idea here is to generate questions not solutions so that you get the team curious and interested about what’s possible. This will help you to start identifying the broad areas of the project and potential starting points.
3. Share team expertise
Teams that have a good shared knowledge of who knows what within the team believe that they can be more creative together. Jonti Small researched the concept of “team creative efficacy” for his MSc in Organisational Psychology and found that teams that share their expertise with each other are more confident that they can develop better ideas together.
Spend time in the session learning about the strengths and skills of everyone on the team, within the context of your project (this is where you can do more detailed introductions). Also gather their expert knowledge on influences, trends and any other insights that might have an impact on the work that you will do.
4. Clarify roles
Teamwork is better when everyone is clear on their individual contributions to the project and their responsibilities. Research into high-performing teams at the BBC showed that they had this one thing in common – each team member knew exactly what their role was in making the project a success.
After you’ve identified the resources, skills and knowledge you have as a team, explore how you will approach this challenge together. Based on the broad areas you’ve identified, consider how everyone’s expertise can best be used to make the project a success. The team members will start to understand how they fit in and what they can individually contribute.
5. Plan for progress
As well as getting the team motivated at the start, you’ll also need to keep up momentum throughout the project until it’s finished. You can plan for this in your kickoff session. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer discovered, by analysing nearly 12000 daily diary entries from 234 knowledge workers, that making small steps towards progress is the most important factor in keeping people engaged in their work.
Build out a rough project timeline with your team to get an idea of what it will look like. Identify mini-milestones and key check-in points that you can use to keep the project moving. You won’t get a full, detailed plan for the entire project at this stage, but you will get an idea of where you can start.
6. Identify the outcome
Google are pulling together some great resources, from their own research into what makes their teams successful. One example is that they identified psychological safety as the most important of five traits that makes a great Google team. They’ve also seen great success with their OKR (Objectives and Key Results) framework, which is a method for setting ambitious and specific goals within a team or organisation.
Get your team aligned on what you’re working towards, and create clear goals. Explore together what success looks like, how it will be measured and how you will know when you’ve reached it. You can also start to define the scope of the project and what is possible within the given constraints.
7. Discuss how you will communicate
In separate pieces of research (here and here), the MIT Human Dynamics Lab found two factors that make a difference in the success of a team: 1) the quality of interactions and 2) equal contributions in conversations. They found that the way a team communicates has much more impact on their success than what they communicate, and is even more important than the individual intelligence of the team members.
“The best way to build a great team is not to select individuals for their smarts or accomplishments but to learn how they communicate and to shape and guide the team so that it follows successful communication patterns.”
In your kickoff session, ask each team member to share how they each do their best work. Discuss how (and how often) the team will meet, make decisions and stay up-to-date with anything new. Design some methods for how you’ll do this at the start of the project, and revise it later when you’ve learned more about how you work together in practice.
8. Set actions and next steps
Productivity experts often say that one of the best ways to beat procrastination is to break a large project into smaller chunks, and then start with a small task. Psychology backs this up with The Zeigarnik Effect a tendency which describes how once we’ve started something, it nags away at us until we complete it. We dislike leaving tasks unfinished.
At the end of your kickoff, get each team member to identify micro-tasks that they can do to get the project moving. For bonus points, find a way for them to start the task in a small way, there and then. Finish your session by setting a date for the next check-in or meeting.
You might also want to provide some time at the end for the team to share any questions or comments they didn’t have a chance to bring up during the session.
A template for a project kickoff
This template for a project kickoff is based on the above structure and includes: a checklist for before and after the session, questions to prompt thinking, and an example activity that you can run for each section with suggested timings.
It is designed as a half-day session, but you could allocate more time to each section and spend longer, or even divide it up and run it over a series of sessions.
The structure of the session is intended to spark thinking and get the team started. You’ll need to do a lot more work after the session to keep the project moving.
What you’ll have at the end of the session:
- Broad project areas and questions to explore further
- A SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) for the project, with team roles and the start of a project strategy
- Initial project timeline
- Project goals and objectives
- Guidelines for team collaboration
- Specific tasks for each team member to do