There will always be a productivity dip for the team when a new member joins. The question is not if it is going to happen, but how much will productivity dip and for how long. Imagine if you could onboard new team members with a minimum of productivity loss.
Team members are traditionally onboarded in one of two ways:
- The “Read This Pile” introduction: You are supposed to learn from a pile of papers or online documents.
- The “Apprentice” introduction: You shadow a team member for a while trying to pick up as much knowledge as you can.
The “Read This Pile” introduction results in information overload – it’s hard to know what’s important. It also results in information gaps – new members don’t learn about what is not documented.
The “Apprentice” introduction has its drawbacks too. You’ll learn a lot from your colleague, but only the things the team is working on right now. To cover all parts of a system might take months because there will be parts that the team rarely touches.
Luckily, there is a faster way – deliberate learning.
How to onboard a new member in a way that maximizes productivity
Here are the main steps:
- Shared responsibility mindset
- Create a “Training Deck”
- Prepare for the first day
Shared responsibility mindset
To minimize the time it takes to onboard a new team member, the team needs to agree to the shared responsibility mindset:
- The team is responsible for making the training period as short as possible, while making sure the new member learns everything they need to become as productive as the rest of the team.
- The new team member is responsible for actively learning. During the training period producing stuff is secondary.
Once the team agrees they can prepare a training deck.
Creating the Training Deck
This step should happen before the new team member joins.
Schedule a meeting to answer the question: ”What knowledge is needed to be productive on this team?”
- Write down each topic (not the actual information) on a card. This is a brainstorm, so everyone pitches in. Don’t worry about duplicates right now.
- Stop when you feel you have covered all the important areas. This usually takes 5-20 minutes.
- Go through the topic cards together. Remove any duplicates, merge, split and clarify topics as needed.
You now have a physical deck of cards that represents everything you need to know to work effectively and efficiently in your team.
How to use the Training Deck
The training deck is handed over to the new team member on her first day. This is a personal training backlog and the new member is responsible for working through the backlog/deck in the first few weeks, learning everything the team can teach about each topic.
The new member starts by manually making a copy of the deck. Keep the original for future newcomers.
Any topic that the new team member already knows enough about can be marked as completed (a cross or checkmark).
From the remaining cards, the newcomer pulls a topic card and asks the team: “Who can help me learn about The overall architecture of the XYZ system?” A team member volunteers to teach this, perhaps in a whiteboard session or a pair programming session or whatever way makes sense.
For this to work, the team has to agree that:
- The new member will work though this deck before joining the rest of the team in production.
- She is going to get the answers by asking the team, and it’s the team’s job to show and explain everything needed.
- Whoever gets a question, helps as soon as possible.
- If someone is really busy or doesn’t know the topic well enough, they can refer her to someone else within the team.
- The team’s collective focus is to shorten the learning time for this person.
Once a topic is covered, the card is marked as completed and a new one can be pulled by the new team member.
There will most likely be some missing topics in the deck. It’s the newbie’s responsibility to update her deck and the original with those topics.
Preparing for the first day
For the new team member to get off to a flying start, the team should prepare for her arrival by setting a concrete goal for her to accomplish on her first day.
For a developer it might be something like “Get the development environment running on her personal laptop, pair program with someone to fix a bug, run all tests and check in the code”. This sets the bar high for what the team needs to prepare before welcoming the new member: make hardware available, arrange for login credentials, a fast process to set up the dev environment, etc.
The preparation activities ensure a working environment from day one for the newcomer and enable a truly productive start. Also, your new member will leave the office the first day with the fulfilling feeling of having contributed to the team.
Don’t forget to celebrate
As soon as the new team member has completed the cards, it’s time to celebrate! Acknowledging the successful completion of the training period lifts team spirit. The celebration also marks that the new member has become a regular team member contributing to production at the same level as the rest of the team.
The focus of this introduction method is deliberate learning. The new member takes full personal ownership of becoming ready to be productive.
Another benefit: The new member gets to know many team members on a 1-1 basis, and feels a sense of belonging to the team quicker than in traditional methods.