I recently facilitated a session with a loosely-affiliated group that was attempting to initiate a new project. After two days together, people were excited about the prospects ahead and began to imagine other entities on campus that could be part of their efforts.

I applaud collaboration and cross-functional teams but cautioned them about taking on too much complexity at the start. The dozen or so people at the retreat had not only committed an extended period of time to be together, but during that time had amassed background information, shared language, and a common vision.

I likened their situation to that of a train. Moving a train from a dead stop requires a lot of energy, as does getting a project or task force off the ground. It’s hard to pull too many cars in that initial push, just as it is difficult to try and bring multiple entities on board from the beginning. Better to gain some momentum and then hitch a few more cars along for the ride. It is also difficult to pull any car who has their brakes on; best to leave them at the train yard rather than to expend energy trying to convince the recalcitrant. For the train to move forward it also needs an engineer, just as for a committee to make progress, it needs a leader to champion the cause, call people together and ensure that the initial enthusiasm doesn’t wane.

Translated to this group, I pushed hard for one person to be designated as the convener for the next gathering and for the group that was initially assembled to work together without the addition of others until the “train” was moving. I think it will serve them well to see some progress quickly rather than spending too much time boarding others at the station.

Think about the composition of your train as you take on future initiatives. Do you have an engineer? Is your train too long to quickly gain momentum? Are all the cars heading in the same direction? It’s much easier to align the train initially than to tend to a derailment.

Leave a Reply