In the world of product development, most project leaders have only one or two opportunities a year to start a brand new project. While we’re good at planning kick-off meetings and tweaking an agenda to meet the needs of our new project, we’re often a bit rusty at remembering all the small things we need to do during the first 30 days of a project. I’m talking about the big impact things that enable us to build high performing teams and set our projects up for success.
Here are the top five things I keep in mind when I am part of a new project team:
1. Remember Everything is the FIRST TIME.
Once we get used to the rhythm on a project, we forget that all of the established daily routines of project life (our standups, estimating our work, conference calls, requirements reviews, how we communicate with each other, our lingo) were nonexistent when the project started. We had to build it together. With any new project, we experience a myriad of ‘Firsts’ with our new teammates. That’s why we need to be hyper-aware whenever we do something for the first time and decide if it’s beneficial to do any or all of the following:1) Call attention to an activity as a first time: Let the team decide how it wants to perform this activity moving forward. Then set expectations and identify outcomes.
2) Make the activity relevant: Can it be used to reinforce or add value to the project’s mission, style, or communication?
3) Use the activity to enhance team performance: Does it help provide feedback, show transparency, build trust, and capture shared experiences?
2. Mind the Gaps
A ‘gap’ is something that is missing. For example, gaps result when processes have missing steps or designs are incomplete. When teams are performing well, they get good at spotting and addressing gaps both within their area of expertise and in the general project. However, teams don’t start out this way. It takes practice to identify gaps and you need to make finding gaps positive rather than a negative blame game. You might be tempted to ‘not sweat the small stuff’ and let small gaps pass unnoticed or fill them yourself. Ultimately, isn’t a very good idea because there’s always going to be gaps and gaps inevitably lead to schedule surprises and slips.
Your goal at the start of the project is to build awareness that addressing gaps is everyone’s job – not just the project leads. Finding gaps is a good thing because it will enable the team to address something early.
3. Build Trust First (and everything else will go a lot smoother)
Many project leaders focus on building a plan, setting up processes, delivering milestones, and managing scope and budget. Then they start driving. Unfortunately, way too often they forget that building trust on a new team is just as critical to the project’s success.
Within the first 30 days of your project, look for (and even create) opportunities to build trust among team members and remove processes that prevent the trust from forming. It has as much to do with ‘tone’ and ‘approach’ than the actual activities themselves, for example:
- Encourage team members to have short meetings from the onset to get everything on the table. This is preferable to trying to cover everything in emails and documents.
• Organize your work so that team members are working in small groups.
• Look for silos between functions and make a good attempt to bring in those members into the larger group.
4. Foster project ownership instead of functional ownership
Project teams are made up of many different groups each delivering a function. For example, you have the business stakeholders, business analysts, architects, infrastructure, development, UI/UX designers, QA and the list goes on. While project teams usually come with a degree of functional ownership, typically there is no ownership of a new project because it’s just that – a NEW project. Your goal is to build ownership in the overall success of the project.
The easiest opportunity to create project ownership is when you hit your first challenge. Instead of focusing on a specific functional team, ask the entire team what they can do to enable the project to still hit the milestone. Make it everyone’s responsibility to figure out a solution. Anyone functional group’s problem is the team’s problem. (This approach may be hard for some functional leads since they may come from a culture that encourages functional groups to compete or to simply avoid getting involved in other functions.)
While it’s not always easy to do, building project ownership at the outset is the best opportunity to create an environment for collaborative problem-solving. You’ll enjoy the benefits throughout the project.
5. Make it effortless to bring up things that need to change
Even the most seasoned project teams don’t get everything right at the outset because each project has its unique dynamics. You can help by making it effortless for anyone to openly discuss things that need to change. For example, some teams do a short (5 minute) weekly meeting on ‘what went well and what should we take a look at’. The meetings are held on Fridays for the first two months of a new project with the goal of selecting a few issues to address as a team.
Don’t force change. If things are going well, stop doing your feedback sessions so frequently. But don’t skip it at the outset. Make it part of the fabric of the project and adjust the timing as things settle into an effective project approach.
6. First Things First
We only get one chance to do many project activities for the FIRST time.
‘Great Firsts’ and quick adjustments after a not-so-great first go a long way towards creating confident, high performing teams. Conversely, lots of slip-ups on ‘first-time events’ and letting small gaps slide often result in an uphill battle to build team credibility and confidence. Keep your team’s focus on minding the gaps, building trust and project ownership during the first 30 days. Those will go a long way towards getting your project off on the right track and building momentum towards a high performing steady state.
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