In 1924 Wernher von Braun strapped six rockets to a small wagon and watched in delight as the wagon roared around his street and then exploded. The local constabulary were less impressed however, and took the twelve year old boy into custody. And so began an incredible story leading up to July 16, 1969. On that day the Saturn V rocket designed by von Braun launched Apollo 11 from Launch Pad 39A to begin the historic mission that would land the first men on the moon. A great parable in team launch.
Wernher von Braun, from the NASA website.
The launch of a space mission must be a hard-to-beat experience. The launch is the pivot around which a space mission unfolds. It is the moment of truth where the design, planning and preparation come together. And it is the start of the chain of events that make up the mission, until the crew is safely back on Earth.
And so it is with teams. In setting up teams, leaders have two important responsibilities: first to design and prepare the best possible team structure, and second, to help members take possession of the structure, and competently launch themselves onto a course they make their own.
The design and preparation phase, preparing for team launch, should deliver a structure, including:
- A carefully designed team, with the right size, mix, skills and experience.
- A clear message about who is in the team and who is not.
- Clearly stated limits of the team authority, what is up for discussion and what is not.
- A team task, defined to foster internal motivation.
- Clearly defined roles and responsibilities.
- A set of agreed norms for team behaviour.
- Agreed processes and infrastructure.
In the second phase, team launch, the leader of the team breathes life into the structure during a team launch session. The first meeting of any team provides a unique opportunity for a leader to have an enduring impact on the way the team works together. A well executed interaction builds motivation and allows the team to invest themselves in the work to be done. As leader you may wish to cover the following points, inviting input from the team:
- Clarification and discussion on the structure of the team as described under the design and preparation phase above.
- Affirmation of the positive features and resources in the team.
- A statement of the compelling direction for the team.
- Discussion on the unique circumstances surrounding the work to be completed.
Project initiation workshops provide the most effective structure for launching teams. There is a slot at the beginning of each workshop where the leader can deliver a motivating address.
There is an alchemy in team launch. A list of names goes out on e-mail and a group gathers. If the team launch is successful, the group becomes a real, bounded social system; a team. The task assigned to the team is examined, assessed and redefined to become the slightly different task that members actually work on. The norms of conduct specified by those who created the team are tried out, explicitly or implicitly, gradually revised, and made the teams’ own.
What will probably not have happened is a discussion about alternative ways of working together to accomplish a task, to agree the best way to proceed. Research shows that this is not natural for teams in the launch phase. Members of teams need to log some experience with a task, and each other before they are able to have a useful discussion on how best to go about the work.