Preparing the Team Before the Project

Image courtesy of Flickr/Kumar Appaiah

At the 2014 Offshore Technology Conference, Jay Trussell of Shell Energy Co. explained how Shell launched a new oil drilling platform into the Gulf of Mexico six months ahead of schedule and millions of dollars under budget. Trussell, operations manager for Shell’s new Olympus TLP rig, covered a lot of technical details, but at the core of his talk lay one critical success factor — he launched the production team before he launched the project.

“Building the culture properly requires identifying and practicing individual behaviors supportive of the culture, and developing leadership attributes which enable the culture to grow,” Trussell wrote in the report released with his talk.

This pre-launch team-building created a culture of achievement with open communication, unshakable trust between members and a commitment to speak truth to without repercussion as core behavior norms — all of which helped the project run smoothly.

It also allowed the inevitable hiccups, reverses, mistakes and unexpected opportunities to be managed with forward-thinking, action-oriented responses that kept the team’s goals at the forefront. New team members could be brought up to speed and integrated into the culture more quickly because everyone was on the same page, understood the mission and could clearly explain their role in it.

Trussell’s story shows that launching a big project without first “launching” the team will almost certainly cost time and money. Preparing a team appropriately will mitigate these problems by:

  • Creating greater interpersonal understanding and embedding collaborative habits.
  • Discovering and properly assigning the diverse talents within the launch team.
  • Conducting formal team-building in advance of launch to establish buy-in throughout the team and establish project ownership for each member.

When the first crisis hits and the well-crafted plan struggles to survive, people have to tackle new issues with renewed enthusiasm instead of pointing fingers. That habit has to be embedded ahead of time.  

The best approach to prepare employees to embrace change is to arm them with the skills to manage change ahead of time. Focus team-building initiatives on reviving and enhancing an employee’s ability to adapt to new situations. Give them the interpersonal tools they need to forge productive relationships with fellow employees and any third parties involved with the business.

It’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel to create an effective team-building launch program. All the tools needed are in a learning leader’s standard development tool kit:

  • Assessments for behavior styles and personal motivators, combined into a team profile the group will explore and internalize together.
  • Workshops that focus on building mutual trust between all group members, inventorying talents each person will bring to the task and developing a strong understanding of each person’s role and that role’s importance.
  • Training modules that replicate the same team-building process.

Never assume team leaders naturally exhibit these constructive team-building habits. Make sure such behavior patterns are embedded in training programs.

With change management training, team members can connect their skills and passions to whatever mission they’re assigned because they understand why the goal is important and what their role is in achieving it. They can communicate better with a range of partners, explain why the project is important and foster a high level of collaboration.

One of the reasons these leadership habits do not come naturally to most employees is that past initiatives that were not well-communicated or managed may have instinctively hardened them against change initiatives. Assume this negative attitude exists, and take steps to break replace it with positive, innovative, collaborative mindsets. Use team-based training to create experiences that send the message and instill the belief that this initiative is here to stay:

  • Find out where is disengagement that could derail a new program.
  • Set up training and development to convert disenchanted people into organizational evangelists without the concurrent stress of a high-impact assignment. Not all will be converted, but fully engaging 80 percent of them is critical.
  • Decouple talent from task. Start recognizing employees not for the tasks they complete, but for how productively they achieve their goals. Appreciate feedback, celebrate small wins, and share stories about contributions large and small.
  • Get these recharged people involved in planning for upcoming changes.
  • Create an environment that is comfortable taking risks. Embed the mindset that what they do each day can change without threatening employees professional security.
  • Embed interpersonal and collaborative skills, and give team members the freedom to apply these skills in ways that push the envelope.

With leadership teams set up ahead of time to be naturally comfortable with change management, the only change that needs to happen is employees re-engaging with the organization’s core mission, and giving them a role to play in setting up the program to achieve it. They might just take the change process from there, as they will have a high sense of ownership.

This story originally appeared in Talent Management's sister publication, Chief Learning Officer.