There are many factors impacting the success or failure of teams. Assuming you prepared your team by defining its purpose, relevance, norms, roles, and key processes, the next step falls on the shoulders of the team's leader.
He or she has to determine what the team will undertake as its first project. How well the team performs on its initial project influences perceptions of team members, management, and others who work with the team. Once formed, these perceptions are difficult to change.
Surprisingly, very little thought is given to this topic. This article presents some criteria for selecting a first project as well as guidelines for approaching it from a systems thinking perspective. It is based on more than 10 years of experience working with a variety of teams (empowered, self-directed, project, etc.) in large and small organizations across many industries.
Selecting a Team's First Project
Meaningful: The first project a team undertakes must be perceived as important to the organization by the team's members. Very few people like working on unimportant, mundane, or trivial projects. Most people prefer to engage in meaningful work that makes a difference. They want to know their work is important in the eyes of others.
I was implementing work teams for a client in the Midwest. This was a start-up and the plant had just opened. Everyone was new. I was walking through one of the production lines when I came across three people working in a small room off by themselves. They were isolated from the rest of the production floor, and surrounded by sophisticated equipment and machinery. They seemed busy and engaged. I poked my head inside and asked what they were doing. A woman told me they were running quality checks on the wheel speed sensors used by anti-lock brake systems. Wheel speed sensors keep track of wheel deceleration and are part of the systems that help prevent the brakes from locking up.
They were part of the quality control team and felt their job was important, not only in the manufacturing of anti-lock brakes, but also in saving the lives of the people who drive the cars with their brake systems. Like everyone else in the plant, these three people were actively engaged in the team's work and committed to its success.
Relevance and Trust
For a project to be relevant there must be a close link between the success of the team's project and each team member's individual success. If team members feel their contribution doesn't matter or that someone else will make up for their lack of contributions, problems will occur. To offset that, the first project must involve everyone and everyone's performance has to be tied to the team's performance as well as their individual contributions.
A team's first project sets the tone for how the team will work in the future. People have to develop trust in one another early. Trust is a function of demonstrated knowledge, skills, and commitment. When people don't perform up to expectations, it's difficult for other team members to trust them. Lack of trust is the scourge of teams and often the major cause of team dysfunction. Team members can cope with and/or cover for people who don't have all the skills or knowledge needed, but they can't abide people who fail to live up to expectations.
Likelihood of Success
It's not important the team knows the project has a high likelihood of success. In fact, it's probably more motivating if its goal is seen as difficult. The reason the project should have a high likelihood of success is because of the political ramifications of failure. People will be looking to see how the newly-formed teams perform. Some people, including team members, may be skeptical. Failure reinforces these negative attitudes. Success, on the other hand, generates pride, camaraderie, a sense of accomplishment, and sets the stage for future successes.
A long time ago, I coached a company softball team. It was a women's team, and in their three-year history prior to my becoming coach, they had only won three games, one each year. I'd been coaching ball for many years and knew how to build softball skills. We worked on fundamentals over and over until they became proficient. They hit the ball harder, threw more accurately, and could field ground and fly balls well. No one other than the team thought we'd do well.
Prior to the start of the season, I went to league officials and asked if we could play the one team we beat each year in our first game. They beat us once each year as well, so it seemed a fair match. I made a small donation to the league's umpire fund, and the league said "OK." Our team killed them. We were jumping around, high-fiving, smiling, and feeling great. It set a positive expectation. They won the league championship that year only losing one game out of 12.
The first project your team undertakes should be a foundation, something that can be built upon and reinforced. Just as a city's planning department concerns itself with an infrastructure that anticipates the future, a team's first project must anticipate future challenges.
A team needs to look at itself, its capabilities, shortcomings, and strengths. Together with the team leader, the team needs to concern itself with improving and planning for the future. Just as the U.S. armed forces evaluate their endeavors after they are completed, your team should do the same. What went well? What can we do more of? What should we do less of? These and other questions need to be raised and answered.
I was working with a self-directed work team in Dallas. They operated a fabrication shop and made things from scratch. The company was a high-tech firm and scientists were always stopping by the workshop asking the team to fabricate this or that. The team was comprised of highly skilled craftsmen who didn't have college degrees, but they did have years and years of experience and could make just about anything.
During one of our strategy meetings, the team decided they needed someone to learn how to use computer assisted design (CAD) software. This was a big undertaking because no one had any experience with it. Most didn't know what it was. To make a very nice story very short, the team selected someone to take a course at the local community college. They covered for him while he attended classes. He came back and taught the others. In time nearly everyone on the team could at least manipulate the software and find needed files. The team saw a need and took action to get it done. Their clients were surprised and satisfied with their efforts and took their time to help build the team's CAD skills. The following year, the team won their company's award for Best Team in the World. Oh, I forgot...this global company has more than 40,000 employees and this team was its best!
The best teams are those in which everyone makes a meaningful contribution to its success. Going back to my earlier comments on relevance, a team's first project must involve everyone. The feeling of being an integral part of a team is closely tied to contributing. Everyone on a team should have a meaningful role. That role has to be acknowledged and respected by everyone on the team. Meaningless platitudes and insincerity are easily recognized. They do more harm than help. A really good team, a great team, is comprised of individuals who work together seamlessly and accomplish great things. All the players have a role. They all are needed, and, when called upon, deliver.
As you can see, a team's first project is an important undertaking. A lot hinges on how well it performs and comes together during its first test. Managers, supervisors, and team leaders need to put careful thought into what they do first. It's not something to be taken for granted.
I've been fortunate to work with some wonderful teams. They've taught me a lot. Hopefully, some of their lessons will help you help your teams.
Alan Landers is president of FirstStep Talent Management Consulting, and a Principal at the Haines Centre for Strategic Management.