To make matters worse, they had every right to feel that way. We has just completed two miserable years migrating data centers negatively impacting our employees and customers. Now, because our division was sold, we were contractually obligated to “do it again” but this time with more scope and less time.
I froze because I knew none of my normal “new team” kick off strategies would work. A “we can do it” high energy approach would come off fake and inauthentic. A “think of all you’ll learn” approach was difficult given no one in the room ever wanted to be on another data center migration again. A “this will be super fun” was out of the question. So I stood there frozen in front of a white board as engineering, network ops and customer success leaders waited for me to kick-off this onsite. After a few painful moments of silence, I had a somewhat desperate, crazy idea.
I asked everyone to close their eyes and to think of the best team, product or project they had ever worked on. I didn’t describe what “best” meant but asked them for that career highlight. A moment later, I asked folks to capture the characteristics of that “best team ever” with each attribute on its own post-it. After a few eye rolls and glares, folks started jotting down phrases. I asked someone to share an attribute specifically instructing that no details of the project, product or team was necessary. Someone shouted out “Trust”. I stuck the post-it on the whiteboard and added the other team members’ stickies to create a “Trust” cluster. “Shared Vision” was next followed by “No Limits”, “Can Do Attitude” and so on.
We ended with handful of characteristics in a fan shape and drew lines on the whiteboard pointing to center circle where we wrote “Awesome Outcome: Happy Customers & Happy Employees”. As we all looked at the words we put on the board, I shared that we could not control the scope of the project nor the timeline as they were both locked. We couldn’t compromise the quality of the program given the nature of migrating massive quantities of financial services data. However, as a team, we were 100% in control of how we showed up to each other, to the rest of the organization and to our customers. The beauty of this spontaneous, thirty minute exercise is that no one was telling the team how to behave. The behaviors were self-declared as critical to be the “best team ever” based on their own experiences. So what happened?
In the post mortem, I asked team members what they were most proud of. Although I don’t remember formally talking about “how we’ll operate as a team” during that year, the team shared many of those very words in their retrospective. While the project was difficult, they were most proud to be a part of such an amazing team which accomplished greatness.
For me personally, that data center team was a career highlight and I credit some amount of the team's greatness to this short, spontaneous exercise.