A human-centered mindset to project kick-offs (+ 10 techniques to try)

A trifecta or circles representing a human centered mindset

When projects are won, there’s often a sense of urgency to get going and we end up skipping some of the activities which can prevent a project from being successful.

As Delivery Managers, our focus should be on helping teams—particularly new teams— navigate the early stages of projects to ensure we’re building inclusive, high-performing, and happy teams. 

This is what I call adopting a human-centered mindset

After 13  years in project management, I’ve learned a number of tools and techniques that will help project and delivery managers get the most out of their teams from the start.

But first, let’s talk more about what I mean when I say human-centered mindset, and why it’s so important.

What does a human-centered mindset mean?

To be human-centered means to genuinely focus on the humans who are at the heart of designing and building products. It’s been proven to improve both communication and team performance.

Recently, I helped kick off a multi-agency project with an hour-long session focusing entirely on building relationships and how to build a team charter. 

I’m keen to share some of those tools and techniques that I’ve tried and some that have been recommended to me. Even if you incorporate a few of these during the project initiation phase, you’ll start to see results.

Let’s dive in!

10 human-centered techniques to master project kick-offs

There are a wealth of activities that can help establish ways of working, roles, and responsibilities and you don’t need to invest lots of time or money for them to be effective. 

Here, I’m going to show you 10 different techniques.

💡 Pro tip: Call out when you’re trying something for the first time and that it may not work but you’re open to feedback as it’ll take some of the pressure off you as the facilitator. 


1. Team Onion – A more human-centered mindset to stakeholder mapping

The Team Onion is a three-layer model that helps to visualise the wider team as core, collaborators and supporters.

Visualizing the wider team as core, collaborators, and supporters.

The Team Onion is a three-layer model created by Emily Webber to help visualize the wider team as core, collaborators, and supporters. Understanding these layers helps to break down silos, surface assumptions, build empathy, and have meaningful conversations about the team. 

Learn more about the Team Onion model

2. Capability Comb – Help focus people less on job roles and titles and more on capabilities and roles

The Capability Comb is a brilliant way for people to think about how they describe their unique capability profile, where capability encompasses knowledge, skills, and experience. It helps people break out of the box that a job description puts them in, then talks about what they excel in and how they want to portray themselves.

Learn more about the Capability Comb

3. Energizers – Set the right tone

Darren McCormac (Delivery Manager) shared at the Agile Manchester Conference how he asked everyone attending the kick-off to, in advance, send him “One fact that someone on your team doesn’t know about you.” Then, people were asked to guess the face behind the fact.

I tried this and it worked really well. You don’t need everyone to respond to participate but try to get one fact from each agency represented. We had everything from “I own a puffin” to “I auditioned on Bargain Hunt.” 

Another alternative to a (cringy) ice-breaker is asking people to google a meme to describe how they’re feeling or a response to a prompt “What’s your image of a dream team?” 

4. Slido word clouds – Use real-time visualizations to engage and spark conversation

Having been in a recent training session where the facilitator used Slido, I tried it as an alternative to Miro for some of the activities and to make it feel a bit more engaging than a whole session of post-its. With the free account you can set up three polls or word clouds for up to 100 people and in real time it shows what people are adding and groups the same item and makes it visualizing more prominent which helps the facilitator to quickly see popular themes. 

I set up two word clouds to get the team thinking about these two questions:

  • What have you valued and enjoyed most when working with blended teams?
  • What have you disliked about working in blended teams? Or run an anti-problem e.g. “What ways of working would we have if we actively wanted to sabotage the project?”

We only spent a couple of minutes on each but it helped get people into the focus of the meeting and made the follow-up activities easier. 

5. Team charters – Get everyone reading off the same hymn sheet

Team charters, working agreements, norms, or team principles—regardless of what you call them—this activity is excellent for getting people to think about what behaviors, attitudes, and values they want to share as a team. 

Start with a quiet brainstorming session, and then group, discuss, prioritize. Next, re-write some of these in the format of statements or clearly articulated principles for the team.

A couple of tips:

  • Give an example of one so people can understand what we’re aiming to achieve/end up with at the end  
  • Give people a license to be creative with the wording so it’s engaging
  • Think about setting principles that will help guide and speed up decision making e.g. we prioritise x over y 
  • Think about what values and behaviors you want to encourage – you may want to incorporate some of the “It’s okay to” into this too 
  • Try and think beyond the project to how you want people to interact too e.g. “share tea, coffee, and food”, “give each other quiet time when we need it” 
  • Think about worst-case scenarios, e.g. how will we manage and resolve conflict?

6. Roles and responsibilities and expectation setting – Avoid misaligned expectations and provide crystal clear clarity

A format I’ve had success with is getting everyone to share what the rest of the team can expect from them and then getting the rest of the group to take some time to add what they expect from that team members or ask questions about things they feel might be missing or where there might be misaligned expectations.  

This template is very similar to one I’ve tailored for my own purposes: find it here.

I often find that not enough time is spent talking about the “what” and the “why.” Although I haven’t tried it myself this activity shared by Sean Gabriel, Director at Red Badger, looks like a good place to start.

Inspired by Manual of Me and Cassie Robinson’s original work. Think about incorporating “What’s one thing you need to know about how I work?” Trust me, it’s interesting to see what people share!

Also, try and get people to think beyond their job title. I love this quote from Emily Webber and these activities often allow for a great opportunity to move the narrative from “job titles” to “jobs to be done” or “capabilities.” 

“Teams are most successful when they have a shared responsibility for success. They blur the lines of rigid roles so that they can collectively get to the value as quickly as possible. That means people stepping outside of their expected specialisms to support the goal. And the great thing is that most of us have specialisms and interests outside of our job titles, so why not embrace that?”

Emily Webber, Author of Team Onion


Lastly, try to capture:

  • What days and hours do people work? 
  • What amount of time are people allocated to this work? 
  • How much do they foresee wanting to be involved? 
  • Does anyone have any leave coming up? 

Think about which of these might be better captured async before or after the session.

7. Team canvas – Kickstart these conversations with a ready-made Miro canvas

For Miro lovers or for people who are either short on time or like a more structured format then this  “one-pager” template to clarify goals and help teams be more aligned and productive is a good option. There’s a short and long version of the activity depending on how much time you’ve got.

This might be more fitting for in-house product teams but there’s value in there for most people. I particularly like the section for team values and a focus on assets and weaknesses within the team to help mitigate against risks within the team. It also provides a good opportunity to explore opportunities within the project for capability building, learning and development, mentoring, and pairing to increase confidence and collaboration. 

Learn more about the Team Canvas model

8. Tribes team building activity – Great for uncovering differences in norms and behaviors when working with blended teams

On some projects, you might be working with a different agency or supplier with a very different set of norms, culture, behaviors, and customs to the one you have. So many of these norms and behaviors are unconscious.

This is an activity that starts to uncover where there might be big differences in terms of approach or openness to certain ideas. It’s great if you’ve got team members with different backgrounds, for example, distributed teams working globally in different languages. It builds empathy and understanding and helps people find a way that doesn’t favor one set of norms over the other but finds a compromise based on what the teams agree they can subscribe to.

Learn more about tribes team building

9. Futurespectives – A tool for risk scanning

I’ve never really loved the term “premortem,” but I’m a big fan of doing them as they’re great for aligning teams on risks, concerns as well as hopes and aspirations for a project. For example, if this was the best project we’ve ever worked on, what would it be like?

Metro Retro is a free tool that has plenty of Futurespective templates to use, and a personal favorite of mine is the Sailboat. Thinking about risks collaboratively before they’re a real threat helps build awareness and creates a culture where everyone is responsible for identifying and mitigating the risks.

Learn more about Futurespectives

10. Checkout – Read the room

Make sure you always leave time for a quick checkout at the end of any activity—use a visual aid and get people to put their name against an illustration or a scale that indicates how they’re feeling.

This way you can get a read of the room and offer the space for people to say what worked well and what they might not have found beneficial. By avoiding that last step, you’re missing out on some key insights and learnings. 

An example of a simple feeling scale, using a storm cloud on one side and a sun on the other.

A human-centered mindset means better outcomes

Delivery management is more than just budgets, timelines, and completing tasks. A truly effective project manager adopts a human-centered mindset that prioritizes collaboration, empathy, and open communication.

Adopting a “people first, project second” mentality requires relinquishing some top-down control but pays off hugely in delivering better outcomes. 

The next time you kick off a new project, consider how you can integrate some of these strategies to cultivate a more human-centered mindset.