As a consultant I'm constantly working with new and different teams (in new and different ways!). It's something I learned a lot about as a project and program manager; the ability to read and adapt to working with new groups and teams has come in handy in real life as well.
There are a set of questions I try to answer as quickly as possible when I know I'll be working with a new group; the answers guide me in working most effectively them. This is important both when I'm part of (or leading) the group as a core team member and also when I need to interface with a peripheral group for information, reporting, or really anything else. If I can find the answers to any of these questions *before* I start working with the group I'm way ahead of the game - doing the research will help me get off on the right foot with them. Here's what I want to know.
Who is the leader? I'd like to know both the official leader and the leader in practice. Those aren't always the same person. Sometimes the official leader delegates responsibility; other times someone else in the group is more experienced, works behind the scenes, or for some other reason holds the real power/leadership role for the team. I'll need to work with both, but I need to understand who can best get things accomplished.
What's the best way to approach the group? Maybe email is their forte. Or maybe I'll need to have formal scheduled meetings with them. I'd like to know whether they work best in person or by phone (if they're not in my physical area it might be worth a trip to meet face to face once, or at least to do some video conferencing). I also want to know what tone to take with the group. Maybe they like things to be very businesslike and official. Maybe they like a friendly handshake kind of approach. Maybe they do best in a hierarchical approach so I'll need to start with a bit of name-dropping, or at least make clear what authority I have in my interactions with the team.
What are the group's motivators? Sometimes I even review my ebook section on motivators to have a kind of ready list. Maybe they like extending their reach. Maybe they like being part of a bigger project. Perhaps they like to be in an advisory role, or would like to teach me about their group, activities, customers, processes, etc. The more I know about how they work and respond the better.
What does the group need? This could be anything from physical resources to trade-offs of tasks to public recognition to formal requests so they can account for their time. If I'm going to take their time working with me I want to be sure to provide them whatever I can in return.
How (and how fast) does the group respond? I need to know in general how quickly I can expect a response when I make a request. This will help me to understand what method they use for response (I can set up for it in advance) - email, meetings, phone calls, a ticket system, whatever their processes and preferences call for. I'd also like to have an idea of how many responses it takes to get a real answer. Some groups do a lot of procrastinating, some groups trickle out the information a bit at a time, some groups prefer to provide a full formal answer all at once, some will provide an estimated time for response after they do an initial analysis. Some groups will just ignore a request unless they're reminded on a very regular basis.
How willing is the group to work with other teams? This varies a great deal from group to group. Corporate, national, and group culture all play into the answer. Thy group's history will also play into whether they're really willing to work with others. Their schedule and other pressures may make it very difficult for them to spare the time for other teams. Some groups are very insular and protect their knowledge so knowledge sharing isn't something they are anxious to be part of. All of this will play into the way I approach and work with a team and what I'll be expecting from them.
How willing is the group to take responsibility for actions, tasks, and results? This will guide quite a bit of my format and interaction plan. If they're really on top of things then meeting notes will probably be plenty. If they forget, like to play the blame game, or are so overloaded that things get lost on their to-do lists I'll need to be more proactive in tracking.
When do you escalate? Some groups expect you to escalate to their management if you need something so that management can make a priority call. With others escalation is considered a last resort so I'll need to treat it that way.
What is the best way to remind the group when they owe me something? I want to know who to remind (and who to copy on reminders), how to remind (email? Phone calls, Skype?), what tone to use (businesslike, cajoling, annoyed…), and how often. The how often is really important to be able to walk that line between annoying enough to put them off and not enough to get into their queue.
Who is important to have in what kind of meetings?Maybe I need to have the manager or team lead in all the meetings.Maybe the whole group needs to be in on every meeting.Maybe one on one works best.Sometimes individual meeting agreements turn out to be invalid, especially if the lead or manager likes to be directly involved; sometimes having the whole team in a meeting is counterproductive.
What kind of documentation is needed?I always document meetings with notes and copy everyone who attended, but sometimes that's not enough.Maybe I'll need to document informal discussions, at least with respect to agreements made.Maybe a wiki post of upcoming due dates will be needed to be sure everyone sees them.Maybe I need a weekly reminder of decisions and action items.
You can see that there's quite a bit of information I can use to tailor good interactions with a group. Obviously knowing as much as possible before the first contact can get me off to a much better start than I might otherwise have, so I try to find folks I know who have worked with the group to give me their take on how best to proceed. Sometimes I just ask some of these questions point blank in the first meeting (I don't always get the real answer then but it's a start). It seems like a lot, I know, but I'll bet if you pick any group you work with regularly you can answer these questions about the group!
Want it in a checklist? Take a look in my By the Numbers blog.