Kicking Off: How to Start a Mission-Driven Team

Teamwork Module 3 · Parabol Resources · 6 Minute Read

As the marketing director of Blockbuster, you’ve been handed a mission and a team to find out the answer to an important question:

Why have sales with 18–24 year-olds declined and how could Blockbuster Video better serve them?

Now the team has to get to work.

There is no certain answer to the team’s mission. That means there is no certain plan. Where kickoff meetings often cover the plan as devised by the leader and project manager, a mission-driven team collaborates to create the plan together. It’s akin to the difference between getting hand-written driving directions and using an app like Waze: we want our team to be like Waze, responding and adapting to new information, to take us toward our destination using the smartest possible route. In this case our “destination” is an answer to the question that is core to the mission of the team.

The goals and agenda for a mission-driven team’s kickoff are:

  1. Assign roles and clarify the mission: build understanding for why the team is assembled
  2. Set near-term objectives: determine the work of the team
  3. Build initial task backlog: break down objectives into first steps

The process takes 60-90 minutes, depending on the size of the team. Schedule a time and pull your new teammates together.

Step 1. Assign Roles and Clarify the Mission

A team’s mission is like its north star, it’s the direction everybody will march even if there isn’t a guarantee the team will reach it: Vasco de Gama circumnavigating the globe, Lewis and Clark reaching the Pacific, or Elon Musk colonizing Mars. A mission is useless if its members don’t understand why it’s important or what their role is on it.

Before the kickoff, make sure that all team members have had an opportunity to read the mission brief. Ask them to prepare questions to clarify the mission that are not answered by the brief. For our Blockbuster Video Youth Engagement Team, team members might write questions like:

  • Of the 18—24 year-old consumers who are good customers of ours, why do they like us?
  • What competitors are we losing business to?
  • If an 18–24 chooses not to spend their recreation time renting a film, how are they spending their time?

When the kickoff meeting begins, get the meeting started by leading a check-in round. Introduce yourself, and quickly introduce the mission and why it’s important to the organization. Emphasize that the work of the kickoff is not to leave with a complete plan for the project but rather to do just enough planning to get the team started. Share the meeting agenda and inform the room that the meeting will start by assigning roles and clarifying the work of the team by asking questions.

Assign the roles you wrote up in the brief to the people in the room. It might sound like, “Kim, you’re our consumer insights researcher; Stacey you’re our market analyst; Dara you’re the strategic planner; Jordan you are our Business Analyst; I’ll be our Program Director and Meeting Facilitator; and Bobbi is our executive sponsor who commissioned this team and will stay informed on our progress.” The role assignments are for the benefit of your teammates so they know who’s responsible for what. Don’t surprise anybody with a role assignment, presumably you’ve set expectations individually when recruiting them to your team.

Next, budget roughly half the remaining kickoff time (likely 20–35 minutes of the original 60–90). One at a time, have folks ask questions. For some of these questions, you might have ready answers. For others, you might say, “that sounds like something we should find out right away,” or, “that might not be as important as finding out [something else].” Give participants a sense for what’s in and what’s out of the team’s mission.

Step 2. Set Near-Term Objectives

If you haven’t worked on a mission-driven team, it’s easy to get trapped into the mindset that the objectives must be achieved. This is wrong. If you’re Lewis & Clark setting out on an expedition to the Pacific there is no telling what you’ll encounter along the way. There will be obstacles to avoid, allies to make, and discoveries to study and understand. With the benefit of knowing how the Blockbuster saga ended we know our team will have to make discoveries leading it from downward trends in youth, to understanding the true threat of the internet, to unlocking an new entirely new business model for Blockbuster in order to truly succeed. Stopping where it actually did (concluding 18–24 year olds want more candy, and changing Blockbuster locations be more like convenience stores) will lead to failure. The objectives must guide our team’s actions, not fix them to a pre-ordained result.

With this in mind, ask your team to find something to write on—such as Post–It® notes (or create a new shared document if conducting the meeting virtually). Ask the team, “what one question should we have answered or what one result should our team achieve 2 months from now?” Set a timer for 3 minutes and give your team time to write.

To focus the team, your goal as Program Director and Facilitator is to narrow the list of possible objectives down to only 3–5 items. Begin by grouping the items where there is overlap (rewriting them if necessary). If you still have more than 5 or are having difficulty choosing, call a blind vote.

Our Blockbuster team’s objectives might be:

  • 18–24 customer segment competitive analysis written and shared
  • 18–24 customer segment unmet needs hypothesized and supported by data
  • Next questions to answer by project team prioritized

When you have your objectives, make certain to record them in the team’s document repository.

Step 3. Build Initial Task Backlog

The final phase of the kickoff meeting is to build a list of things to do immediately. To do this we’ll ask team members to consider the objectives we just set and to think of tasks they can perform in progressively smaller time windows: first by setting tasks due 2 weeks from now and second by setting tasks due 2 days from now.

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Start by asking your team members to think of 1–2 tasks they can get done in the next 2 weeks to help the team reach any of its objectives. Set a timer for 3 minutes. Have them write these tasks down using clear handwriting. When the timer expires, review each task as a team, and have the task author rewrite the task if the task or the language describing it isn’t clear.

Our business analyst’s 2-week tasks might be written as:

  • 18–24 customer data analyzed by region and customer sub-segments discovered
  • 18–24 customer data analysis shared with team

Next, make sure that everybody has the tasks they wrote in front of them. Ask your teammates to think of the first step of each of their 2 week tasks that they could get done in 2 days. Set a timer for 3 minutes. Have them write these steps down. Again, when the timer expires, review each task as a team, and have the task author clarify the task if necessary.

Our business analyst’s 2-day tasks might be written as:

  • 18–24 customer data pulled from the data warehouse for analysis
  • 18–24 business intelligence queries drafted

Finally, make sure everybody writes their name (or initials) on their tasks and collect them. You’ll use them to construct your team’s task backlog (we’ll cover exactly how to do this in Module 5 – The Sprint Board: Organizing Uncertain Work). Close the meeting.

In the next article, we’ll give you an overview of how the team will operate to get work done and achieve its goals.