onboarding for project management

Minimizing Chaos Through Onboarding: A Repeatable Process for Smoother Projects 

By: Enrique Colombo

Let’s face it. Projects aren’t as straightforward and crystal clear as project managers would like them to be. There are often twists and turns, especially as new resources enter the mix. 

Onboarding is one of the frequent project stressors, especially when new team players enter midstream while the project runs at 100 mph. Bringing in new voices, new ideas, and new modes of operation can throw a project into a bit of chaos. 

Some of the elements each project must address include personnel, timeline, and scope. Having a cookie-cutter process for onboarding can help the new kids on the block feel more comfortable and confident from the outset, help existing team players better understand their roles, and maintain momentum and confidence in the project. Here’s the cookie-cutter process I use anytime I enter a new project or bring in a new team player.

Step 1: Define Who’s Who

Before the rocketship of a project takes off, it’s important to establish who’s at the helm. Knowing the leadership and the project management organization (PMO) leading the ship from taking off to a sustainable cruising speed helps reduce any potential friction in the engine.

Knowing who to report to isn’t enough. One of the most crucial components when defining a who’s who of a project is a RACI. 

A RACI is a document that outlines who is Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed on the project. In other words, it is Mission Control. This sole document clarifies 

  • Who is responsible for which pieces of the project 
  • Who will be held accountable if things go well or if things go wrong
  • Who to consult with questions or for clarification
  • Who must stay informed at all times 

In addition to establishing the who’s who of these roles, it’s equally important to give a little context to the people behind the title. Clarifying the best method of communication with each person on or off the RACI offers a clear and simple workflow for collaboration throughout the project. As needs arise, the person being onboarded will be crystal clear on the best communication practices, and the escalation process should the need arise (and needs always arise in project management).

Step 2: Define the Terms of Engagement

With the who’s who roster established, new members to the project should also understand what’s expected of them or the terms of engagement.

Clarifying time allotment up front, including how many hours per week and contract terms, helps teams, contractors, and employees understand the point of departure, the aim, and what is to be individually delivered in time AND space. When everyone is clear on what is expected of the other parties involved, it’s easier to understand bandwidth, availability, and roles. 

In addition to time, it’s equally important that every player understands their part in the overall project objective and the part others play. In the early days, many new employees will try to put their hands in various roles or parts of the project, but this is the wrong approach. Instead, when onboarding, encourage your new team members to focus on what’s expected of them at the start. Later they can go broad, but it’s best to wait until they hone in on what the rest of the team wants from them. 

Also included within the terms of engagement are status updates and reporting. Knowing the frequency of which to report on your status and who to report to lets you keep your fellow team members in the know. Many times, progress is assumed until things go awry. Clarifying the terms and expectations for how project progress and issues get reported will help keep everyone on the same page.

Step 3: Define the Systems

With personnel and expectations in place, it’s time to establish the systems used throughout the project. New team members need to take the initiative on this step. Too often, new team players sit and wait for access to systems, while other project players assume they already have access and are familiar with how to use the tools. 

Make sure the new rockstar in the project understands what systems are needed, why, and by when they will become critical.

Giving quick access and training on the systems used throughout the project gives the new team member you’re onboarding confidence that they can immediately move forward. In addition, it allows everyone to get on the same page concerning reporting systems and tools needed to do the job well. 

A Predictable Process for Smoother Onboarding

Ultimately, the onboarding process must define these three core components every time — personnel, terms of engagement, and tools or systems used. When each of these areas gets clarified up front, teams can move forward faster and with more autonomy to do their job well within the scope and expectations.