DockYard Associate Director of Product Strategy Samantha Gonzalez co-authored this post.
It’s normal for a client partner to feel overwhelmed when kicking off a project.
There’s an abundance of information from the business development phase, client history, and project details. And on top of that, it’s their responsibility to translate all of this to a new project team, some of whom may have never worked together.
To get teams aligned and getting to know each other quickly, DockYard uses a kickoff workshop known as Team Startup.
This workshop came from an Austin Meetup, Kickass PM. We have seen this workshop yield excellent results by many different project teams and in fact, a few project team members have proposed it be a required activity for kickoff.
The DY team not only laid the necessary technical foundation for Elixir, but also helped Veeps mature their processes and product through a 3-week long technical discovery that also included user story mapping, product, and teamwork sessions. This set the stage for the next 6 months of work, as the (expanded) team worked together towards the roadmap despite all the challenges they faced along the way due to constantly changing requirements and scope creep.
Think of a Team Startup as a shortcut through the “storming” phase of a new team with two objectives:
- Internal: Get a team to gel quickly and feel comfortable with each other
- External: Work as a unified team with external stakeholders and all the personalities on the team
What you and your team gain when you invest a couple of hours in a Team Startup:
- Everyone get the chance to be efficient and productive right away.
- Even before you deliver your first iteration, you’ve each invested some time and energy into making the project a success. Boom.
- You and your team gain steam together.
- Everyone starts at the same spot in Team Startup, from the newest Developer to the seasoned Product Owner to the Quality Assurance Engineer who has never even touched the product.
- Each team member learn how each person likes to work without some of the personal feelings and negative attachments that may pop up in your team retrospectives.
Kicking off a new team, project, or effort takes time to set up. There’s usually a ton of information to convey, multiple agendas at play, and the most important component to success can also be the most difficult–the people.
You’ve likely been in some teambuilder meetings where you’ve shared a fun fact about yourself, maybe even introduced a pet over a virtual meeting, or shared an outline of your past work with a new team. At DockYard, we’ve spent the last several years remotely kicking off hundreds of projects and teams, however, and we’ve found that the Team Startup helps individuals and teams get to know each other quickly and more deeply than they can with icebreakers and fun facts.
I REALLY liked this exercise. The time limit part of it was great and kept things moving.
Setup & Timing
Prior to introducing the exercise, actively acknowledge that you will make this a safe space for yourself and others. Have everyone else agree with a hand raise or comment that they will work to create a space for everyone as well. Prepare 10 minutes for this introduction, the setup, and to answer any questions.
Each person will fill out the prompts one at a time and share the sections as they go. Make sure to have an individual timer going so folks know how long they have to share. For this example, we’ll assume we have a team of six.
As a rule of thumb, we suggest giving two minutes of heads-down time per prompt (18 minutes total) and six minutes of sharing for the entire group with one minute per person (54 minutes). If you have over six people, you may want to extend the sharing time.
With this in mind, you will want at least 90 minutes for this activity:
- 10 Minute Introduction
- 2 Minutes Heads Down (x9)
- 6 Minutes Share (x9)
Team Startup Directions
To run this session, we recommend using a whiteboard tool such as Mural, Miro, or Whimsical if you are remote. If you are in person, you will want a whiteboard, sticky notes, and markers.
You will have nine prompts that each individual will answer through sticky notes. Each person will start by writing their name on a color, so make sure you have enough for each team member participating. Pre-fill your virtual board with sticky notes so participants don’t have to create their own.
The nine prompts:
What I’m the bomb at…
This is a place for the team members to share their strengths and what they are bringing to this project. Titles may mean different things so this gives them a chance to show individually where they excel.
Why I care or don’t care about this project
After you’ve introduced the project, allow team members to share what they are excited about and potentially what is not exciting to them about this project. For example, they may be excited about using a new technology but have no personal interest in the industry. Reminding participants that they are in a safe space and giving an example as above, can help them feel more comfortable being honest.
This gives team members a chance to bring up skills that may not be related to their job title but are related skills, interests, or contacts that might come in handy in this project. For instance, let’s say a project is focused on a learning platform for kids and a team member worked internally at Blackboard LMS.
This is where people tend to put their Myers-Briggs, StrengthsFinder, or other assessments. Individuals might add things like “introvert, detailed-orientated, structured, spontaneous, conceptual, etc.”
Working styles can be similar to personality but this prompt should focus on how an individual processes information and how they work best with others. One might say “I whiteboard everything” or “I need heads-down time before I can jump into a workshop so I can process.”
Pet Peeves is a great place to share the little things that drive someone crazy. Often, it’s a few small things that add up to unfavorable interactions with peers. A few we’ve heard are “overuse of acronyms” or “last-minute meetings.”
This is the area to bring over both the positive learnings and growth opportunities from previous projects or companies. Even if folks were coming from the same project, they may have a different learning that stayed with them.
Life Beyond Work
This is a place to get personal. List out any PTO coming up, life moments that you feel comfortable sharing, or anything else you want your team to know outside of your working life. Previously, I had someone share that they were going through some medical issues so they would have a lot of doctor appointments coming up. It helped to know the team was aware of this and could support them by working around these holds in their calendar.
My Development Goals
Lastly, list out the goals you are working toward with your manager. These might be around leadership, learning a new skill, or working through feedback you’ve received.
Board & Facilitation Tips
Make sure there is a timer that everyone can see to know how long they have for heads down and sharing. To mix things up, call on folks in a different order to share so everyone can practice their active listening.
It also helps to use a tool that people are familiar with. If they have not used the whiteboard tool, give them a few minutes to get familiar with the board and write down practice stickies. Make sure to freeze or lock elements on your board that you don’t want individuals to move. If they can move it, they will!
Keep an icon that will serve as your guide in the box you are focused on in case someone needs to leave or gets kicked out of the board. We suggest using your company icon or something in line with the project.
If someone shares something difficult or deeply personal, respond with “Thank you for sharing that” or “Thank you for being open with us.” Often, that will be the best reply to let them know you heard them.
Why Team Startups
Team Startups have a recipe and yield quantifiable results. They work at the start of a new effort and are great when you’re introducing new folks to an existing team as well.
A well-run Team Startup gives everyone insight into communication style and working style. Each person on the team gets a chance to understand others both as Individual Contributors and Project Leads. Team members get a chance to be vulnerable and honest with their peers and leadership. Everyone is on a level playing field during the session.
It also gives facilitators and project managers an opportunity to learn valuable information about the people on the team. Managing personalities on a team is as much a part of our job as managing work and products is.
While there is no guaranteed way to ensure your team will bond quickly, this workshop allows the team to be vulnerable through a series of prompts that cover the wide range of who they are, what they do, and what matters to them.
By the time you’re finishing up, you will have a better sense of the individuals and how they will work together–and each participant will too. Even if teams have done this exercise previously, who they are and what their goals are will be different six months ago than who they are today.