25 May 2017

Five Reasons to replace your old school team Kickoff

We’ve kicked-off hundreds of teams and have made many mistakes along the way. We’ve chosen to highlight five key insights we’ve learned along the way.


  1. Co-creation
  2. The Leader Mindset
  3. Depth and Breadth of Vision
  4. A Shared Consciousness
  5. Building a Pathway


Co-Creation → The term co-creation was popularized by C. K. Prahalad and Venkat Ramaswamy in their 2000 Harvard Business Review article, “Co-Opting Customer Competence”. The idea is simple enough; create an environment where the teams create a product with customers and leadership. Companies that successfully do this well are huge market winners (Ford, Microsoft, PayPal etc). We have found that empowering a cross functional team requires more than telling them that they are a team, giving them a vision and sending them on their way. To bridge the gap of performers and non-performers we extend the idea that the customer is the source of competence into the teams.

During the inception the team, customers and leaders become the content creators. The inception is the container where this work gets done. For this to occur, a mindful balance is necessary during the planning process of the inception. We have found that, the product (quality and usefulness) is in fact  subordinate to the experience of the inception itself. With this in mind, we begin with the evolution in mind and not the end in mind. The inception experience expects and requires variability ultimately leaving all possibilities open. It is only with the shared understanding of this variability that empowerment is attained. Most importantly, the act of co-creating with diversity capitalizes on the variability. Simply put, holding space for a group of diverse people to create something amazing, will do just that.

Leader Mindset →  We bring this into the space of the system to empower the team and to begin to shape a common understanding of what leadership is.  The team needs to break away from stereotypical ideas of what a leader is in their environment.  Typically, this is represented in some type of hierarchical pattern within the organization where rules of engagement are followed; you have those who are the “leaders” (thinkers) and those who are the “followers” (doers).  An Authentic Leader mindset in any situation, especially in an Organizational Transformation, is critical; this fuels the needs of co-creation and collaboration and begins laying down a foundation of trust.

Our first Inception Process in a new transformation always begins at the “leadership” level.  We start at the Cx and SVP level to help them understand the criticality of their full participation as “doers” in the transformation.  Doing looks different depending on what level we’re operating at, but the goal is the same…delivering value to our customers. A leader’s role in an inception is to provide business context and to listen. From our experience, the greatest contribution a leader makes in an inception is listening and guiding. Furthermore, it is more powerful for the teams to develop the solutions than the leader. The teams do the work, therefore it is critical to their intrinsic motivation that the teams own the solution.

We create a leader-leader mindset during an inception. This shift empowers those responsible for getting the work done, whatever that is. For a senior executive this may look like someone who is crushing organizational impediments, being engaged and listening, truly empowering others to be decision makers, and building or reinforcing bridges between business units.  A software developer is also a leader and he needs to be empowered to perform on the team. This may look like co-creating an emerging application or system design, performing the role of a value stream engineer (SAFe), ensuring the flow of information and collective decision making, and/or advising senior leaders on directional impacts. The inception holds space for, and encourages, authentic leadership, the style most known for building trust.

Depth and Breadth of Vision → During a traditional kickoff, a leader will have created a vision prior to the meeting. Then she will present this to the team during a 20 to 40 minute time slot usually during the first hour or two. She will provide motivation by telling the team why they were chosen and how she believes that they are the right people to get the job done. She will have a Q&A session and then will exit with high hopes. Even if the leader writes a great vision that connects with both concrete and abstract thinkers there just isn’t enough depth, breadth and buy-in to execute cleanly on the vision. We don’t fault the leader here, we fault the process.

The Inception process seeks to solve what John Kotter hailed as “Error 4: Under Communicating the Vision by Factor of Ten” in his Harvard Business Review essay (Kotter, 2013). We know that retaining and using the vision in our daily work can be challenging. We also know that cognitive, emotional, and environmental influences of the present merge with our past experiences to connect us with what we are learning. The complexity in the human mind prevents us from connecting with the vision. This is normal and expected. Knowing this allows us to adopt more powerful practices.

We create space during the inception process where every member of the team (leader, customer, vendor etc.) develops their own personal connection with the vision; they do this through collectively building the product or program vision. The key to the success of this experience is in the process of mindfully coming to a consensus. Buy-in occurs because everyone contributed to the outcome. Breadth occurs because of the diversity within the solution of the group. Depth occurs because of the clarity with which leaders, customers and teams members articulate their expectations. It is usually at this point where the team begins to experience flow.

Shared Consciousness → During a traditional kickoff a “team building” event, or events, will be added to the agenda. They are usually scripted in a way that the facilitator forecasted would be useful. We’ve done this as well, and have found that the team building events, more often than not, interrupted the flow of consciousness within the group. The inception process is a mindful and thought intensive process that requires flow; events that detract from this have a negative effect. Content is built by the teams during the inception and therefore team building happens organically. On occasion, we’ve intervened (with an exercise) to create a distinction or illustrate a point of clarity. However, this is only effective if it adds or increases the flow rather than detract from it. This type of intervention requires a mindful approach and an equal amount of skill and ability to be successful.

The inception is intended to create flow within the team. This is often the first time a new team will experience flow and creates a powerful emotional bond to the context the group is developing. It is also a baseline from which to coach or reference in the future. The power of flow has been emphasized in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi TED talk: Flow, the secret to happiness as well as his book “The Psychology of Optimal Experience.”  I have personally never experienced this type of flow within a legacy based kickoff. I have however, facilitated multi-day inceptions with the participants selecting to break only for lunch. This type of performance is an indication of flow and highlights shared consciousness over individual concerns.

Building a Pathway → A pathway, is defined as “a way of achieving a specific result, a course of action” (Google:define, 2016).  Key outputs from the Inception Process include a Roadmap (a pathway) representing the desired business value to be delivered and the order in which the teams may deliver it. Defining the business pathway is most effectively attained through the natural flow within the inception process.  The co-created vision naturally connects the entire Roadmap together.  Value streams that are disassociated with the vision are outliers and stick out like a blue banana. Team members quickly self-govern and align around the outlier to question the streams actual value. This leader-leader environment persists within the inception and continues to develop post-inception.

The roadmap provides context around the team’s every-day work and assumes variability.  As a result, it is expected to shift within the competitive market.  Using a co-created prioritized set of critical features, the roadmap is a pathway for the delivery team(s) to begin the journey of idea to value delivery.  The co-creative environment experienced during the development of the Roadmap empowers stakeholders and the team(s) to act as one during inspect and adapt cycles.  As market demand shifts the Roadmap is tweaked to match the current market trajectory. The concept of ‘what’s next thinking’ is always present between the team and the stakeholders.

Prahalad, C.K.; Ramaswamy, V. (January–February 2000) “Co-Opting Customer Competence”. Harvard Business Review.
Kotter, J., Downloaded from:  http://c2l.mcnrc.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2013/06/LeadingChange_Kotter.pdf on August 15, 2016
Google:define, Downloaded from, (https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=define%3A%20pathway) on August 15, 2015