Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success

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Get your project out of the blocks quickly in 2017

The start is the most important part of any race. Usain Bolt, the Jamaican 100m sprinter, multiple gold medal winner and world record holder, was consistently slow out of the blocks when he first started competing, which forced him into the position of having to work twice as hard to catch up.

This is a great metaphor for starting a project off in the right way. If you don't start with understanding 'how' you'll work together as a team, you'll be constantly playing catch up with the work that you have to do.

As a project sponsor or project manager you need to think carefully about the people that you need to be involved in this unique culture you're creating. Think about the detractors, passives and promoters and invite them all to [at least] two days of culture setting. Or as Simon Dowling says in his excellent book Work with Me 'Throw a Starty Party!'

Two days of establishing a vision, agreeing behaviours and talking about how you'll work together. Two days where you discuss what works well within your current organisation, and what lessons you've learned from other projects and elements of your organisational culture.

Lessons around how you gather information, how you talk and communicate with each other and how you set your workplace up for success. Are you co-located (always the best option) or are you geographically distributed? How are you going to run your meetings? Stand up, sit-down or walking? Five minutes, 15 minutes or 45 minutes? How are you going to use music (because headphones are a culture killer)?

How are you going to celebrate success and reward great behaviour, collaboration and innovation? How are you going to keep it simple and, most importantly, how are you going to ensure that you don't take yourselves too seriously?

In essence, you're going to do a pre-mortem on your own project. You're going to think about all the things you need to do differently to ensure that your project doesn't die early. Nobody wants to do a post-mortem, so do the lessons learned first because if you wait until the end, it's too late.

I work with organisations to help them do this and, make no mistake, while the two days are a lot of fun, it's also hard work. Getting a culture right isn't easy, but the best chance you have of doing it is at the start.

In her book We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote that 'Culture does not make people, people make culture.' While James P. Carse said in his book Finite and Infinite Games 'Just as it is essential to have a definitive ending, it must also have a precise beginning.'

Creating this precise beginning is your responsibility as a project sponsor or manager and you must be fully engaged throughout. Once you have an established culture you can pass responsibility to the team to ensure its evolution.

As a project manager you need to put significant time and effort in ensuring that this happens. Netflix is an example of an organisation that takes this responsibility seriously. In its culture deck, it tells managers that 'We’re a team, not a family. We’re like a pro sports team, not a kids recreational team. Netflix leaders hire, develop and cut smartly so we have stars in every position.'

A joint McKinsey/Oxford University study that found that for project teams to be effective and to meet their goals they 'need a common vision, shared team processes and and a high-performance culture'.

It's this high performance culture that will keep people motivated and wanting to come into work. They'll invest their reputation and energy into the project and think from a position of possibility, not negativity.

This is no accident. It takes time and strong leadership from the project sponsor and manager.

Or as Ed Catmull, current President of Pixar Studios, says in his book Creativity Inc. 'Quality is not a consequence of following some set of behaviours… rather it is a prerequisite and a mindset you must have before you decide what you are setting off to do.'

I'll leave the final words in this blog to Usain Bolt ‘I worked a lot on starting well. After that, when I get into my stride, I just let everything flow.’

How are you building a culture that allows the team to get into their stride?

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