To Maintain Team Momentum, Shift Modes Of Working

IDEO Senior Portfolio Director and IDEO U Instructor Katie Soven

Imagine you’re at the bottom of a rock face preparing to start a climb. You’ve mapped a route based on what you can see, but once you’re halfway up, your new vantage point makes it clear there’s a better way to the top. Do you stick with your original plan and go full speed ahead, or take a moment to pause and address the new information? 

Katie Soven, senior portfolio director at IDEO and instructor in our course Leading Complex Projects, says “There’s a natural tendency to mistake activity for progress.” But constant forward motion is unsustainable, and often not the best approach for complex work. In order to maintain momentum and reach their goals, teams need to shift gears several times throughout a project. Project leaders are responsible for sensing the team’s need to shift and guiding them through these moments. 

In this Creative Confidence Podcast episode, IDEO U’s Lead Learning Architect Meg Rice talks with Katie about how to maintain team momentum through complexity by shifting modes of working, the cycle of inhale and exhale in project work, and a framework for project leaders to know when and how to make a shift. 

Listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

Project leadership is about people more than output

While the goal or outcome is what you and your team are working toward, a project leader’s success is rooted in people. And for the people on your team to thrive, they need a rhythm to follow that offers natural moments of activity, rest, inspiration, and synthesis. 

“The moment team members sense that a project or plan is more important than the people on that project and that the rhythm isn't responding to their needs, that's where you start to see disengagement and burnout,” Katie says. 

More than ever, work projects are mired in complexity, evolving over time as resources, requirements, and stakeholders shift. As much as they try to plan ahead, project leaders can’t predict exactly what they’ll need to accomplish the desired outcome. They have to adopt a responsive leadership style—balancing planning with sensing and reacting to their team’s needs in real time.


“There’s a natural tendency to mistake activity for progress.”
Katie Soven


Inhale to exhale: A shift to keep teams moving forward

You may be familiar with the shift from divergent to convergent thinking. Often used in the brainstorming process, this is a change from going wide with your thinking and generating new ideas to synthesizing information and making decisions. (Learn more about divergent and convergent thinking in our course Cultivating Creative Collaboration). Other types of shifts leaders can make to their teams’ focus are in time horizon (from near term to far term), scale of investment (quick wins and bold moves), or context (what would we do vs. what would a competitor do). 

A shift Katie uses in projects she manages is inhale to exhale. Inhale is the moment of gathering information, building understanding, finding inspiration, and filling your team up so you can be ready to solve a problem. Exhale is applying all that you’ve learned and gathered to pull out insights, shape a point of view, share a prototype, and craft a potential solution. “The exhale is a tangible manifestation of your sense making,” she explains. 

The shift in modes doesn’t just go one way. As you exhale and make sense of things, you may realize your team needs another moment of inhale. Expect to cycle through several times. 

How to initiate a shift as project leader

It can be hard to initiate a shift for many reasons: team members might see it as a sign they were on the wrong track, there might be disagreement about the best next step, or the project lead doesn’t know how to approach it. Katie uses the Sense, Act, Learn framework (inspired by data scientists at IDEO and augmented intelligence models from people like Douglas Englebart) to help her find the right time to make a shift and empower her team to begin making shifts on their own. 


Finding the right moment to make a shift is a balancing act. Katie layers these moments on top of her project plan at the beginning, but she also looks for signs that her team needs to make a change. These include getting stuck in one mode, tunnel vision on one part of the challenge, a lack of new thinking, a lot of agreement and consensus because it’s the easiest way to get through, or focusing on planning more than doing. You may also need to shift if you have new information, like input from a stakeholder or user or something has changed in the world that impacts your project. What mode is your team in and what mode should they be in?


Now that you know you need to make a change, Katie has a few tips for taking action. Pre-seed the idea of shifting with the team at the project kickoff. Share hypotheses of shifts you may need to make. “This doesn't mean we won't have a plan,” Katie says of how she gets her team onboard with the idea of cycles of shifts. “It means that I, and I hope all of us, will be looking for opportunities to respond to what we're learning and how we're feeling.” 

When the time comes, acknowledge the work that’s been done so far. Call back to your initial goals for this project phase (maybe that’s completing five customer interviews) to show that you’re ready for the next step. Ask your team if they feel they have what they need to move forward. Voice the observations you made that led you to believe now is the right time to shift. Then propose a manageable but radical shift, like a make day or going from individual work to working in pairs. Naming the shift makes it feel like a bigger moment, which makes it easier for people to try a new way of thinking and working. Language is important in this process. Instead of directing your team, try phrases like “What would it take to…” or “What if we try…” to give them more authority. 


The ultimate goal is for your team to recognize the signs on their own—and to collectively initiate these moments. To sustain momentum and energy, it can’t just come from the project lead. Teams build resilience by frequently shifting modes. “The more cycles you can get in, the better the work will be,” Katie says. 


“The moment team members sense that a project or plan is more important than the people on that project and that the rhythm isn't responding to their needs, that's where you start to see disengagement and burnout.”
Katie Soven


Act in service of the project goal, not the plan

Having a plan is critical. Winging it is often not the best approach when you’re dealing with incredibly complex projects. The challenge for project leads is not holding that plan too precious—or feeling like making a shift will disrupt the team or reflect poorly on you. Let your plan evolve as the needs of your team and situation change. Because inevitably they will change. Your ability to adapt (and to help your team see shifts as productive and natural) will help you realize the project goal more than a perfectly laid plan ever will. 

Learn an adaptable approach to guide others through the inevitable ups and downs of complex projects in our online course Leading Complex Projects

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