KingChapman Blog

Why the Launch is Critical in Launching Breakthrough Projects

Posted by Bob Chapman on Oct 17, 2017 7:00:00 AM


Breakthrough Projects are designed to achieve breakthroughs or a step level change in performance. A breakthrough leads to results that otherwise were not going to happen. A breakthrough requires a fundamental change, rather than simply working harder. Further, the change introduced to produce the result will also make this new level of performance sustainable over time. Launching breakthrough projects are a proven method for achieving breakthroughs, and are an essential element in organizational transformation. These projects interrupt the existing mindset and processes in order to produce breakthroughs.

While there are many elements which contribute to success of breakthrough projects, the most important is the launch. The launch involves setting up the team to be successful, and then starting it off in an empowering manner. Conversely, when teams that are operating falter, the predictable cause is some matter that was not addressed during set-up and launch.

Key Elements to the Launch

The launch is based on effective communication from the team leader, the team confronting the essence of their Charter, and becoming a team based on the requirements and results contained in the Charter. Perhaps the most serious mistake that can happen during launch is the team not looking closely at their Charter and listening to the comments of the Executive Leadership Team which is sponsoring the project. This mistake begins with the thought that the executives are not really serious about these requirements and results. There is an implicit assumption that we can renegotiate the content of the Charter once we are going. This false assumption that “we can change the goal posts" once we get started will derail the most talented team.

Prior to the launch, the executives should examine if the right skills are represented in composition of the team. That is, insuring that all the important component parts are there. Also, the executives will need to assure the team that it is capable of performing the expected roles since they have all the parts that are needed. One final element of the launch is to confirm that the Charter calls for producing breakthroughs even though there is not a clear understanding of how it will happen. There is confidence that the team will figure out how in the midst of its work.

Launching a Project is Like Sailing

Setting up a person to sail for the first time on a small sailboat provides an interesting analogy for launching a breakthrough project team. My wife and I are both experienced sailors. We have sailed the same boat in Galveston Bay for years. The trade winds which blow in from Gulf of Mexico give us predictable, prevailing winds. Launching our boat is straightforward given our experience and predictability of the winds. A stark contrast is a recently acquired small boat for use at our cottage on Ahmic Lake in northern Ontario. There the winds are light and swirl around in every direction. Additionally, we are unfamiliar with the boat, so there were many lessons to be learned.

This little boat was long ago manufactured by a small Canadian company. For some reason, the manufacturer chose to name this line of boats “Skunk”. I imagine that alcohol was involved in that decision. Nonetheless, we named our boat Pepe Le Pew after the cartoon character of the same name. The first task in getting the boat ready was to attach the name to the side of the boat.

With the name installed, my wife was keen to sail the boat, so we collaborated on rigging it. This involved figuring out how best to hoist the sails, install the rudder and manage the centerboard in shallow water. If all the parts were not properly positioned on the boat, it would be a problem. As an example, one time we left the plug out and the boat quickly filled up with water before it could be launched. Another time we neglected to connect the rudder, so there would have been no means of steering the boat if it had been launched. Fortunately, we were able to correct these mistakes prior to launch. These missing ingredients are metaphors for breakthrough projects. The team needs to have the right composition of members, as well as a team leader to guide the team in its work.

The initial launch of the boat included me walking out into the lake to float the boat off its trailer, assure she had everything rigged correctly, and then to gently push her off in best direction to catch the wind. This description also applies to how the executive sponsors prepare, position, and then launch breakthrough projects. The launch or “shoving off” by the executive sponsors is essential in getting the team set up and running properly.

Launch Meeting with Breakthrough Project Team

Successful launching of breakthrough projects is a robust conversation. These conversations involve:

Specific Technical Terms

These specific terms are essential for the functioning of the team, as well as conversations between the executive leadership team and the breakthrough team. These terms include:

Definitions for each term must be understood and agreed upon prior to launch. A neighbor was standing by one day when my wife and I were rigging our sailboat. We were using the technical terms for the boat parts, when I looked at our neighbor. From the look on his face it was clear that he had no idea what we were talking about. Just as it doesn’t work well to say hand me that “thing-a-ma-jig” when maneuvering a sailboat, neither does it work to create a breakthrough project without giving the team the distinctions and technical terms they will need to be successful.

Business Case for this Project

The business case explains the strategic and operational reasons for the project. It answers the common questions: Why this? Why now? How will this benefit our organization?

Understanding the executives view of the business case provides the team with important information as they communicate with others in the organization about the project.


The Charter is the mechanism for authorizing and creating a breakthrough project. It is written from context of the future in which the results have been achieved. The Charter brings alive the excitement, importance and expectations of the project.

This Team

Participants on the team need to know why they were selected for the team. Team members have two questions, the answering of which will be important:

  1. Why me?
  2. What’s In It For Me (WIIFM).

Working Together

As part of the launch the project team should have time to talk about what will we do and sort out what it will be like to work together. Invariably, questions arise which provide excellent opportunities for conversations with the executive leadership. Conversations resulting from these questions is the equivalent of pushing the sailboat off in the proper direction.

Discipline and thoroughness in launching a Breakthrough Project Team is essential for success. Shortcuts in the launch will leave the team rudderless and without the required wind in its sails.

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  • What are ‘Breakthrough Projects’ and how do they deliver transformation in an organization?
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Topics: Leading Breakthroughs