Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Building a Successful Project Team From Scratch In City Government

Overview

As a continuation of my MBA internship, I decided to work on projects one day a week within Detroit’s City Government. I became the project manager of a team charged with restructuring a large city department. I received hardly any guidance on what to do, save for a broadly written executive order and the charge to “restructure that department”. Figuring out what that meant and doing it was my job.

Given that my challenge centered on retooling an organization, I decided that using a management framework I learned about in my MBA Program’s core Cost Accounting class – the McKinsey 7S framework – was a good place to start. This framework suggests that organizations must align seven interdependent pillars to be successful: shared values, strategy, structure, systems, skills, style, and staff.

SKILLS AND AND INSIGHTS GAINED

Building a Shared Vision – Because we received little guidance on what success looked like or what we should do, I decided to facilitate a brainstorm during our first team meeting. Using the 7s framework as a guide, I anchored our brainstorm in two simple questions: “What is our organization like today?” and, “What should our organization be like in the future?.

After about two hours and about 100 post-it notes, we had a much clearer, common understanding of how the future-state organization would operate, how it could be structured, and its existing gaps. For example, this brainstorm highlighted the need for a special projects manager tasked with capacity-building projects instead of day-to-day responsibilities serving customers. Because of a two-hour time investment early on, we avoided weeks of squabbling to reconcile individual team members’ visions for the organization. Instead, because we crafted a shared vision of success, our team was able to quickly build momentum and trust. Building a shared vision is a much better approach than jumping into problem solving without one.

Identifying the Right Problem – At the beginning of this project, I had a choice. On the one hand, I could have done what was most obvious and simply look at local government best practices and implement a new organization chart. After further investigation and reflection, however, I realized the root-cause-problem we needed to solve was changing a culture – implementing a new organization chart just happened the most obvious element of the solution. As a result, I led our team to think much more holistically about how we were restructuring the organization. Instead of only discussing sticks and boxes on a page, we talked about our customers, our purpose, employee motivation, and management systems. As it turned out, our task was so much more than an org chart.

Building a team to solve a problem is a fool’s errand if you pick the wrong one or misunderstand the problem’s root cause. That’s hard to do because understanding the root-cause-problem is a step in the problem solving process that’s easy to overlook because it doesn’t feel urgent. For example, at the beginning of our project, I felt pressure to produce a new organization chart as quickly as possible; stepping back to understand the culture of the Department originally felt like a waste of time. Understanding the “right” problem also isn’t easy – it requires an open mind and inquisitive dialogue with all the parties associated with a project. The hard work of identifying the right problem is worth doing, however, because solving the wrong problem wastes precious time in the long-run and is tremendously demotivating for team members. 

Defining Success Metrics – “You can’t manage what you can’t measure” is certainly a cliché, but I’ve found it to be true. Knowing this, I tried to develop a simple metric to know if our team was making progress. What I decided on was a single number: the percent of future-state staff positions that were filled. What I learned along the way is that creating metrics – and even measuring them – isn’t enough. Metrics don’t matter if teams don’t see them. Keeping score doesn’t change behavior if nobody can see the scoreboard.

IMPACT AND LESSONS LEARNED

Building a team from scratch to solve a new problem is not easy. In the past, I would have rushed to start taking action to “make progress.” But as much as it feels right to rush into an ambiguous situation, that doesn’t lead to successful outcomes. The hard work of a leader is to simultaneously imagine the future and build it. You have to build a plane as you fly it.

That’s what I was able to do in this situation and it put my team on a path to success. I’m certainly not perfect at launching teams from scratch yet, but this experience proved to me that it’s something I can do well.

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