Don’t ask for a team. Make your own team.

A team member shared with me that it was particularly difficult to initiate a project solo. So help was requested on our mailing list. I thought to myself, this might not be the right way to approach the problem.
What if instead of making an open request for helpers, you hand-pick a highly effective team of people. I came to realise that having people that can help you is only one part of bringing a project to success. The other half of it is to pick the right people to be on board.
Here is my answer on how I approached big projects in the past.

I have to admit that the path of a project initiator is usually a very lonely one. But only lonely at first, it gets better. Here is my experience and how I suggest tackling the problem.

As you said, with bigger endeavours you indeed need a team. From what I have seen, the team starts forming with a somewhat regular pattern: (1) produce the simplest prototype, (2) hype your surrounding, (3) build the team, (4) make the product.

1. MVP

At first, the priority is put making a Minimum Viable Product. The MVP has the shortest and simplest requirement list. In our case, it can be:

  • Only a few features
  • Simple the build
  • Simple the change

That basic prototype is going to be extra useful for the next few steps. This is going to be used to show your friends/colleagues and secure help.

2. Create Hype
The prototype is then shown to your surrounding. Everybodyyyy really. This is the opportunity to also get feedback. The prototype is tweaked and improved a bit.
In that process, it is when you start identifying people that have an affinity for your project AND the skills to help out.

Careful with people that are just hyped about everything but have to be taught everything. You cannot afford to lose momentum.

3. Team
The first step is recognising that a team is needed. The next step is to build that team. From my observation, people don’t come to you; you have to come to them people. Pick people with experience, people that are experts at what they do. Early stage project requires a strong core team that know what they are doing. This allow reducing time in the learning curve and maximising time in making the product.

One should be careful with the assumption: “If I ask for help, then people will help”. It is partially true if the task is a simple task such as “help me move furniture”. But when the task is from a specific domain (such as a technical challenge), you have to hand pick your team. “Be specific in the selection” is what I’m saying.

4. Make

After securing excellent people who are subject matter experts, that’s when things starts rolling pretty fast. That’s when you start seeing the project mature.
Your position as the project initiator becomes project manager. Your role is still to push the project forward, but now, you have to spend about half your time following up with people, setting the next objectives, re-iterating your vision and ensuring that the project moves forward.
Following up with people is probably the most important thing. Do it in person. Do ideally once a week. It doesn’t have to be long. Just a stand up meeting is good.

As a project manager, you have to handle your team efficiently.  It is particularly important to set

  • clear goals (what to do)
  • clear instructions (how to do it)
  • clear deadline (when to do it for)
Some people are fairly autonomous and don’t need that; but avoid assuming that.

This process is not easy. It does take tremendous amount of effort, but it gets better as you get to step 3-4.

I will take IEEE Concordia as an example.
1. MVP
IEEE Concordia was a simple student society that had a room in downtown. It was full of stuff that nobody used, ever. The society wasn’t used for anything really. It didn’t have any concrete services or mission.
So I came in as the treasurer. I designed improvements plans, made a budget and 3D models of what I wanted. Then I fought with the school and secured funding.
2. Hype
With these plans and money in hand, that’s when I was showing off to everybodyyyyyyy how awesome this project can be. And how useful this will be for everybody. Of course, many didn’t really believe in what I said. But a few stuck around and wanted to see this happen. So with a small core team of believer, it went from a ‘meh’ room became an awesome hanging out placeThis took tremendous amount of effort to pull it off. But it was needed to prove that the project had a future.
Inline image 2
before -> after
3. Team
From there, people started to see that I wasn’t bluffing. That is when I was able to hand pick the team I wanted: Vice-President, VP Social, VP Finance, VP Projects. These were the people that I knew could help me unlock the next stage.
4. Make
Then we started to build the infrastructure and reinforce the foundation of the organisation. At that stage, all I was doing was management. The team liked to see objectives. Theobjectives were set fairly close to one another, so there was always a sense of reward for completing the goals. Thus, that is how you keep team moral high by showing that progress is being made.As we got more and more popular by showing off the infrastructure we had, people started to come and the team grew bigger.The first year, we only got “Most improved society”. Expected, we were still working on making it awesome. The next years, success! We got “Society of the Year” two years in a row, and got it again last year too.
IEEE Concordia as we know it wasn’t built in a few days. It took 2-3 months for me to secure funding and conceive the new vision. Then 2-3 months to build it to my MVP specifications. Finally, another 4-6 months to build the team that I wanted. And even then, there was tonsssssssssss of road blocks. Shoutout to Corey for being a major player in making IEEE Concordia awesome.
A good one line description of this process is really:
Take baby steps. Tackle one objective at a time.
There is indeed a strong need for project management and leadership skill to lead an initiative. It does take a lot of energy, I admit. But it is possible to pull off.

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