Chartering, Lift-off, Setting the Stage, From the Beginning…

Chartering, Lift-off, Setting the Stage, From the Beginning…

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One of my favorite, old-time rock groups is Emerson Lake and Palmer. And their song From the Beginning seemed appropriate for this article.

One of my new favorite voices in our agile community is Sandy Mamoli out of New Zealand. I’ve read oodles and oodles of her work, but I have yet to see her in person. Fingers crossed, I get that chance soon.

One of the more interesting things that Sandy is focusing on is team self-selection when it comes to how to organize around projects and work. Recently Sandy wrote a piece entitled: Giving Teams the Best Start.

In it she emphasizes the work that Ainsley Nies and Diana Larson have done in their book Liftoff, which just released its second edition.

If you’re familiar with the term, Project Charter, then your familiar conceptually with the focus behind a liftoff. That is starting things well within agile team projects and contexts. You can use the terms charter or kick-off synonymously with liftoff.

Now back to Sandy’s article. Her article focused on team self-selection of the agenda or discussion items that would make up the liftoff. She even went so far as to make cards that the team could use to create the agenda board. So the team not only participated, but the self-selected the topics for the liftoff event.

Sandy published a book earlier this year, Creating Great Teams: How Self-Selections Lets Teams Excel.  As the title implies, it focused on self-selection when it comes to how you organize your agile teams. Point being, instead of the leadership team figuring out how many teams, what they work/focus on, and how they should interact for a large project, her view is to let the teams decide.

So the extension of this idea to chartering or liftoff session with the team is a natural one.

But beyond these two works, I continue to think about this idea of “self-selection” in agile. Does it work? How and when should you leverage it? And, how do you effectively weave it into the influence of local managers and leaders.

In fact, that is my biggest concern, that we might marginalize the role of leadership in assisting, guiding, and supporting team self-selection practices.

My own example

I have my own example of leveraging self-selection.

A few years ago, I was engaged by a client to help kick-off a new agile project. They had identified approximately 50 people to participate in the event. The folks were cross-functional in skills and the client envisioned 4-5 agile teams resulting from the kick-off efforts and forming the final project teams.

In fact, they had already developed an organization chart for the teams.

I asked them to reserve “sharing” the organization views for a bit. Instead, I thought they might focus first on the goals for the project. That is, explaining the WHY behind it in mission, vision, key milestones, and incremental goals. Then I asked them to ask them teams how they might want to form in order to attack the project.

The teams took to this question eagerly and came out of a brainstorming / collaboration sessions with some very thoughtful organizational alignment. In other words, the teams self-selected the team structure – numbers, skill alignment, roles, work focus, etc.

When they were done we asked them to review their views against the leadership teams pre-work. Then we all worked to consolidate the two perspectives into a very interesting approach for teaming within the project.

Point being – neither the teams nor the leadership folks selected it, but they merged their views into something that made sense from everyone’s perspective.

But as you all know, the proof is in the pudding. So the real question is how did the organization alignment work when delivering the project?

The answer is – beautifully. In fact, I visited that client two years after the beginning of that project and the original teams were still delivering incrementally as the project evolved. And the teams were high-functioning and high-performing.

I remember thinking at the time that most of that durable success was related to the START they orchestrated in that original liftoff event.

The next time you’re at a crossroads and contemplating kicking off a new agile project I want you to stop and consider the implications of this article.

Do you:

  • Jump right in and start sprinting without any directional awareness and thoughtfulness?

Or do you:

  • Plan a thoughtful and thorough liftoff;
  • Engage the team in crafting their team structure and roles;
  • And generally align leadership and the team before “jumping in” and delivering value?

My hope is that I’ve inspired you towards the latter approach and given you some references for effective execution.

Stay agile my friends,


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