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Building a New Team? How Leaders Can Make the Most of the Team Formation Process

The process of forming a new team—whether as a startup organization or as a new division or emerging program team—is more than hiring and onboarding individuals to the team. Done well, an intentional team formation process builds trust and relationships amongst team members, creates clear organizational culture, and engages the new team in a process of shared learning. Team formation is a project in itself, requiring intense attention for a period of six months, give or take, and ongoing maintenance and management after that.

Yet it is rarely approached with such care and attention. Even though the way a team works together will be one of the most important long-term determinants of success, a team formation process is rarely managed with the rigor it deserves.

This is in part because new teams often have little time for each other. They are forming for a reason, and they have obligations to other stakeholders from day one. Leaders typically struggle to prioritize the team itself, and have minimal bandwidth to dedicate to managing team formation. There’s a vision to drive, a business plan to execute, and positive change to show in short order.

Five Tips for an Effective Team Formation Process

While so much has to happen, the truth is the team formation period cannot get shortchanged. Recognizing the constraints on leaders, we’ve developed an approach to team formation that is especially well suited for fast-moving and high-stakes organizational environments in which “the plane has to be built while you’re flying it.”

Step 1: Proactively and strategically set aside time for team formation.

It will be important to create protected time to meld together as a team over time, rather than trying to form all at once or, worse yet, rushing through and skimping on critical team formation steps. Be proactive and strategic about setting aside time for this work. Fewer deep dives that allow the collective to work together through complex challenges will be more efficient and effective than trying to force everything into the daily and weekly grind.

Before you do anything else, look at the calendar and protect about one day per month for team formation. Some sessions can be a half day, and sometimes five weeks in between is fine. Just getting these on the calendar is a simple but critical and often overlooked step. Scheduling the time communicates to the team that this time together matters, that it’s going to be approached in a purposeful way, and that they can spend the rest of their time focusing on the work at hand.

Step 2: Set clear goals for your team’s formation.

Get clear about what matters most as you come together as a new team. We recommend three goals centered around building trust, codifying the culture, and learning together.

  • Goal #1: Build trust and relationships. Positive, authentic, and trusting relationships between team members may be the single most important outcome of the team formation period. Relationships have always influenced team performance. But in intense change scenarios, like the formation of a brand new organization, relationships matter even more. (For more on building team trust and confidence, check out these tips for managers).
  • Goal #2: Codify the culture. There is no “right” or “best” culture. The best one is the one that is most appropriate for the context in which it exists—the people who are involved, the outcomes required, and the broader environment in which the organization operates. While it cannot be engineered, it must be intentionally developed to be healthy and able to withstand the challenges of ongoing growth and change.
  • Goal #3: Learn together and build team processes as you go. Your team shouldn’t try to answer all of the questions about how you’ll work together right away. Instead, focus on meeting commitments to the field and learning as much as possible while doing so. This learning should be gathered up and used to develop, test, and refine hypotheses about your team’s shared values, vision, and ways of working together.

Step 3: Outline a deliverable, such as an employee guidebook, that will capture all the team formation decisions.

Like any other project, team formation should include a written final deliverable that has long-term value. Without a clear deliverable, ideas float in the ether and have trouble gaining traction. In this case, we recommend that the deliverable be an employee guidebook that captures all of the learning from the initial six-month period and organizes it into a document that has lasting value. While employee handbooks capture detailed policies and procedures, an employee guidebook is a living document that defines the organization’s culture and ways of working.

By outlining the guidebook first, the rest of the process works to fill in the content. It typically includes Why We Exist, What We Do, Who We Are, How We Work Together, and Other Agreements and Details. Over the course of the formation period, learning is translated into hypotheses, which evolve into decisions.

At the end of the team formation period you’ll have a document that describes in rich detail the unique culture that is right for your team. All the better, the document will be immediately useful for onboarding new employees, communicating the culture, and holding each other accountable.

Step 4: Leverage the set aside team time to do the collaborative work.

With the time blocked, goals set, and deliverable outlined, the cycle of monthly deep dives can begin. Every four to five weeks the team should come together for a dedicated day focused on team formation. Each day’s agenda should address all three goals (as listed above).

  • Start the team day with time for intentional trust and relationship building. Personal journey work deepens self-knowledge and understanding of each other’s motivations, strengths and vulnerabilities. Facilitate synchronous 1:1s to help participants give feedback to one another, be direct about what they need from their teammates, and repair trust when it has been compromised.
  • Next, encourage shared learning through facilitated reflection. With the team moving so fast, these team days are important opportunities to bring everyone back to the same place and can create shared context for decision-making.
  • Finally, translate shared learning into decisions about how the team will work together. These decisions should be captured in the employee guidebook. Capturing and documenting all the discussions of Who We Are, What We Do, How We Work, and more is an essential step in any team formation period.

Step 5: Keep it moving in between team sessions.

In between sessions, most of the team is freed up to focus on learning their own work and getting it done. However, someone does have to keep their eye on team formation as a special and strategic project. The executive leader should work with one or two other team members and perhaps consultants who can help facilitate the process of moving things forward between dedicated team formation sessions, which may include drafting the next set of hypotheses in the guidebook that can then serve as content for the team’s review during the next session.

What comes next

After the six-month formation period, the employee guidebook document will have immediate and lasting value, but it will be the process itself—and the conversations and decisions it prompted—that have the most lasting impact. Once the team “graduates” from the initial team formation period, the frequency of the full group team sessions can shift from monthly to quarterly. The focus will shift from setting and codifying the culture to living it in practice, operationalizing the ways of working together, and implementing processes for ongoing team alignment and performance. Trust and relationship building should remain an ongoing element as well.

Create the Team and Organizational Culture You Want

This approach can work whether you are starting a brand new organization or bringing together existing employees to form a new division. Regardless of the context you only get one opportunity to form together. Do it right and you will establish the foundation for long-term performance. Fumble it, and you’ll end up spending your time repairing culture and figuring out how to turn back the clock.

There are obviously many ways this process can be tweaked based on the context, but the basic elements of it can work in any high-stakes environment in which the team has obligations to funders and other stakeholders from day one. These obligations need to be the priority around which the team coalesces. But for the team to succeed in the longer term, trusting relationships, positive and productive culture, shared vision, and an appropriate level of process will be essential to achieving success and sustainability.

With this approach, your team will be able to focus on building momentum in the field, and meeting its strategic commitments, without losing sight of the important internal work necessary to build the long-term foundation for sustained impact.