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Team Kickoff Exercises

Building A Team

5 April, 2020

Ilya Kozlov, VP of Engineering at Taxfix, has launched 10 teams using this framework of exercises for team kickoffs and relaunches, and has found quality performance from teams following his off-site events.


There is a transition period to get a team up to speed after an acquisition. This also occurs when working with a new partner, either nearshore or offshore. As a leader, you need the team to be performing as quickly as possible so that the company continues to run efficiently. Here are the exercises I use to move that process along.

Actions taken

  1. Before beginning, you need to gather the context and identify goals. For example, a small reorg vs pivoting the team scope would require different activities. Generally, though, you would like to get everyone on the same page as far as scope, roles, best practices for working together, and simply getting to know each other better.

  2. Then, before you conduct the off-site event, identify long-term intentions for the team. Ensure that there is a long-term mission for the future. If it’s not there then make it part of the kickoff.

  3. Next, schedule a half day, if not a full day, off-site kickoff. Involve all cross-functional teams including engineers, designers, and product owners. If you’re an experienced engineering manager you can act as the facilitator, otherwise it might be wise to have an external facilitator lead the event.

  4. During the off-site day there is a set of exercises I do in order to successfully set up the team.

    A. Introductions - There are a few games I utilize depending on the context of the event. These activities are a way for individuals to present their skills so that others understand their profiles, and to present some more intimate information about their life. i. One game is called “talent bazaar.” Everyone takes a flipchart-size piece of paper and covers both sides so that others can get to know them better. One side is designated to professional life and the other personal life. a. Professional - What things do they do best, things they enjoy doing the most, things they don’t enjoy doing, their hard and soft skills, plus their preferred way of communicating. b. Personal - Background, family status, and hobbies. ii. Another game is “two truths, one lie.” iii. Lastly, I use a game called “ups and downs.” Everyone draws their life, containing both the ups and the downs, from the day they were born until now. This is more personal and works better for groups where people already know each other fairly well.

    B. Putting it in context - The team needs to understand what they are trying to achieve. Usually, a product owner takes the lead here. Their presentation should explain the business perspective and the business context. New individuals to the org don’t know much about the company and so you need to give the team input on the context. If it is a relaunch then you probably just need a little refresher. In this case, discuss topics that you’re currently working on.

    C. Long-term roadmap - The goal is to connect everyone’s day-to-day life with a bigger objective. If you have a few milestones in mind, feel free to present those and discuss different ways of getting to that bigger objective. If you don’t have any milestones or an objective, I highly recommend trying a business game called Remember the Future. The idea is that you imagine you travelled five years into the future and that you have a fantastic product with millions of customers. Then, you need to remember how you got there and brainstorm those steps. This game inspires people to envision the bigger picture for the future. Of course, you will need to put on some business constraints to refine it, but it creates a nice robust foundation for a roadmap.

    D. Vision and mission for the team - If, at a company level, you have these things already in place then you can inherit the objectives of the company. If not, it is best to create something as a group rather than having nothing at all. I use a technique where I have a broad explanation of the mission and vision for the team. I ask people to write it down on a piece of paper, gather them in groups to discuss, then they are responsible for refining what I’ve given them. You’ll get a variety of new versions and the team selects the best one. Posting it builds inspiration and connects team members with the larger picture.

    E. Wrap-up - Collect feedback and share opinions. What did everyone learn from the event?

All of these exercises usually take a day. Be sure to give the team a lunch break. Depending on your goals you could split the event into two sessions or change some of the activities with those that are more relevant for you.

Once the team is integrated into the org, monitor and support them until they are running sufficiently by themselves. Don’t leave them on their own. They need to first figure out their own rituals, stand-ups, planning, backlog, and cycle lengths. You, as a manager, should take part in retros, share your knowledge, and bolster those who take the lead. Help them get through the storm, through the forming phase and into quality performance.

Lessons learned

  • When making introductions I think it is important to know how many years of experience somebody has. Sharing this allows people to understand seniority and what to expect of them. We know what to expect with the role that we are in, but we should also share this information with others so that other people know what to expect from us as well.
  • It’s important for the team to understand the long-term roadmap. It creates long-term motivation so that people comprehend the bigger picture. Additionally, they will associate this vision to their daily work so that they are always thinking broadly and how to connect that to realities. Furthermore, the roadmap can be used in retros and for establishing objectives.
  • Be open-minded. This is a framework that has worked for me but you don’t have to follow every step. What’s important is spending quality time together as a team.

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