Revitalize a Large Team PDF Print E-mail

In 2005, I was given a challenge: to get the ailing and unfocused electronics R&D department back on track. This included three locations and more than 75 people, some of the highly educated (PhDs, MBAs and the like).

Objective:
Make Electronics R&D relevant to the company
Context:
Dwindling contributions to the product pipeline; low regard; team without focus or strategy; first substantial exits
Key Strategies:
How to break the perception as “ad-hoc resources” for the tech teams; develop a strategy with the team; form an actual team out of disconnected groups; be relevant to the business;

I inherited “Advanced Electronic Applications” due to the departure of the last director to a competitor. The team was in bad shape.

It had three locations which did not really work together. There was no clear purpose for the team other than to suck up to the larger tech organization and do their dirty work. The project portfolio was opportunistic. The team members, though clearly bright and excited, were disenfranchised. There was no fire or excitement outside of their own pet projects (that there were many of those).

What was missing was some external respect and a strategic purpose.

I spend a lot of time talking to folks inside and outside the team. I sent my own team members in to talk engineer-to-engineer. I gathered facts and opinions. In the end, the picture was pretty clear.

The prior directors had no clue what it meant to direct. As engineers, they were completely over their heads when it came to managing people or politics. Consequentially, the team was lost. We needed something to latch onto, something that got engineers fired up, something big enough to mold these three camps (plus my old team, my position of strength) together. And we needed something that would reduce the dependency on the larger product development teams and their approval.

I started rather simple: by having everybody share a weekly status update and by having a weekly All-Hands teleconference call. That alone drove a lot of the sharing and getting to respect one another. It also helped to ferret out off-kilter pet projects.

After traveling the world several times, I did something very radical (and painful, as I got a lot of challenges against it): I pulled 25 of the team’s best and brightest together for a weeklong workshop. The objective was to set the direction for the new team. The hidden objective was to start them working as a team. Preparing this workshop took a month, and I am still very proud of the structure and materials. I showed them how broad and exciting their work could be, how diverse the challenges, how much their insights had value. And the team started to click.

In the end, the reorganized department named itself ACT (Advanced Concepts and Technologies). Execution took center stage: the slow slog of getting people to do what they signed up to do, removing roadblocks and dealing with those that were on their way out (even though they did not know that themselves). My work was done as much as I could before it was time to leave.

 
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