In the consulting world, we’re constantly hopping from project to project, and it often takes too long to ramp up. It’s natural that new resources might struggle when jumping onto a new project and role but it doesn’t have to leave a scar.
While a new team member may have the generic subject matter experience, he may know nothing about the subject as it specifically applies to the new project. It’s important to help folks like this to build knowledge and become relevant and effective fast.
So what does that timeline look like? Normally, people would need a couple months to fully ramp up their knowledge in a new role, but in the fast-paced world of a business transformation project, that’s simply too long. We gotta go! A few weeks is often all they get to quickly get on board a high-speed train.
Let’s talk about 6 ways you as a new team member can ramp up and add value quickly, as well as how managers can facilitate a smooth transition.
1. Take Notes
No matter what role you’re in, take notes! People always think it’s a punishment, and it may seem like a menial task, but it isn’t.
Taking effective notes helps a newcomer translate various conversations with multiple people into a structured and organized narrative. It enables you to synthesize different vantage points by central ideas and themes so you can better understand what is happening, what the priorities are, how people work together, and where the landmines are.
Taking notes also helps organize your conclusions into something that becomes relevant to your team. Never underestimate the value of the “new guy” asking the “dumb questions” that shines a light on an assumption or a crucial gap missed by people who were too buried in the details or accustomed to the way things are going to see the miss.
On the other side, as a manager, encourage the team to highlight anything they feel is important so the new team member can record it and internalize it as foundational knowledge about the project. This turns a flat prairie of information into a detailed mountain landscape, which represent the important ideas that need to be highlighted.
2. Admit When You Don’t Know
Being the new kid on the block can be nerve-wracking and no one likes to feel like they’re asking too many questions. Being independent is awesome but we need to admit what we don’t know on a project.
As a manager, encourage all new players to tap their team members when they don’t understand something or need clarification. The mantra should be: clear is kind; unclear is unkind. Knowing you have to ask is prudent; letting ignorance fester is foolish. There shouldn’t be an expectation to know everything at the start (this goes for every role on the project, no matter the seniority). It’s each team member’s responsibility to help educate the new folks about what’s relevant, no matter how small or trivial the topic.
Sometimes the confusion lies in acronyms that are specific to a project. Consulting is, if nothing else, learning to tread water in an alphabet soup: SAP/APS/SAC/IBD/JDE/R2R/P2P, and on and on it goes. I was on an ERP implementation project called USROTC, which stood for US Region Order to Cash. We had an ex-marine join the project who saw the acronym as a military program and was understandably a bit confused until this was clarified. Breaking down terms of art into clear definitions is often the best way to get new folks grounded.
3. Take Small, Simple Actions
Even the smallest actions can have a big impact on newbies. Owning small, simple actions to have tangible wins and a sense of adding value early gives the first underlying impression that you are contributing, no matter how small. You’re not just taking; you’re also giving back.
Here’s an example: I was the project veteran and tasked with creating a leadership presentation. A new analyst said he didn’t fully understand the material but wanted to take a stab at putting the presentation together. It might not be totally accurate, but I could build from that rough draft.
The technical benefit to me was gaining the 20 minutes it would have taken to create the presentation draft. It wasn’t much, but it was something, especially from the analyst’s perspective. He gained that experience and then knew what we were talking about, plus maybe the next time, he would be equipped to do the presentation himself. It’s never a bad idea to invest in your team and pay things forward.
Even if it takes someone new more time to do a task, it will be worth it in the long run. And while projects run fast, they also often run long, so long-term dividends are the name of the game here. Others will start asking them to take on other activities. They effectively move from simple tasks to full activities to support the larger team.
Once the presentation was done, I asked the analyst to follow up with the five SMEs on the team to make sure they knew what needed to be done. Now he was leading an activity rather than just executing it.
4. Don’t Be Nice; Be Efficient
I once had a team member tell me he could do something when, in fact, he didn’t know how. He was trying to be nice. Nice isn’t always efficient, and this can be detrimental to a project and team. Good intentions can lead down destructive paths if not tempered.
If you don’t know how to start, admit the problem and ask others how to get started on the path. And remember, if a manager can’t trust you to say ’no’ and that you don’t understand, then she will never be able to trust you to tell her ‘yes, I will get this done.’
Encourage those on your team to ask for help when they need it. It’s not a sign of weakness but of strength.
5. Grow Your Scope
A role will only grow from where it begins. Own it and be ready to grow.
As you go from taking on basic tasks to owning full multifaceted activities, you can look at connections to other bodies of work. You’ve taken over one work thread. Fantastic. That scope never lives alone. It depends on other threads that are interwoven within your team and others. Look at interdependencies and take on what you have the ability to take on. Build bridges with your neighbors.
That being said, you also need to know when to limit your scope when you have more work than you can handle. This comes down the road.
6. Do One Useful Thing Well
Learn to do one thing that’s useful and do it fast. It doesn’t matter if it’s big or small such as taking the right notes, calculating metrics, facilitating a meeting, mapping a process, or making a pretty report. Everything matters to add to the collective enterprise. If you see an activity being done repeatedly, grab it, learn it, and know that it will be useful for you to know the skill as it will be required, repeatedly. If someone else isn’t available, you can do it.
For example, I have a horrendous memory. I may forget a name shortly after being introduced to someone. However, I can memorize a drawing. I can represent it the same way. In a design session, pre-COVID, I would stand up and draw the design as I understood it. A visual representation of whatever we were talking about. During COVID, I couldn’t do that. So I decided to learn to do a design drawing on PowerPoint as fast as we could talk about an idea.
During the first couple weeks of my last project, I had no clue what was going on as I was still ramping up. But having that skill, I would draw what we talked about so we were on the same page. Everyone loved it because we had a flow. We all understood and agreed. It became what I was known for. I had little knowledge of the project initially, but I was still seen as someone who could contribute from day 1.
There’s often no way to prevent the sense of vertigo that comes from having to hit the ground running in a new role. But honing your rapid onboarding skills is a practical, repeatable, and step-by-step process that you can master. Lean into being the trainee—write down what you think you know and validate, ask questions, take on small tasks, connect the dots within and across teams, and actively communicate your level of ability to take on new and additional activities. It may not make the ramp-up any less intense, but with these habits in mind you will get through the process faster.