Hello, Goodbye: Maintaining momentum when team members come and go


Let’s face it: No project lasts forever, and no team will live on indefinitely without some change in membership. As more organizations pull together ad hoc teams to get important work done, membership is likely to ebb and flow as certain skills and experience are most needed, even when the life of the team may last months or years.

This issue of Communiqué provides some guidelines for bringing new people on board, while letting others go gracefully, without interrupting momentum or diminishing energy. While most of our tips can be applied to all teams, creating an entry or exit strategy is particularly challenging for teams whose members work virtually. The reason: Unlike their co-located counterparts, virtual team members have fewer opportunities for the kind of informal, impromptu conversations by which much vital knowledge is shared and context provided.

  • Determine how relatively permanent the arrival or departure of a team member is likely to be. Plan to spend less time and energy orienting a new member who may be making a one-time cameo appearance, versus one who stands to play a prominent role over time. Likewise, if a team member needs to bow out briefly but will be accessible during this time, you probably needn’t expend much energy in planning an exit strategy.
  • Figure out what information a new member needs to launch into productive participation with the team, and how best to provide that knowledge. If the political landscape is a critical success factor, the best way to describe the likely landmines may be to pick up the phone and use anecdotes to provide needed context. If, on the other hand, the new member needs to get up to speed on the team’s progress versus plans, it may be best to point to a shared repository and highlight certain documents that can be read by the new member in advance.
  • Assign a team “buddy” to help ramp-up each new team member. Try to rotate this responsibility, consciously pairing people who may benefit from each others’ skills and experience. Ask the “buddy” to set aside a certain amount of time during each of the first few weeks to answer questions, provide insight, or give advice. This should be done in person or via phone verus email to allow for more open, direct conversations.
  • Make explicit your team norms and operating principles, and explain how they play out in the day-to-day life of your team. For example, if a team principle states that each member is responsible for informing others if deliverables are delayed, explain what this means in terms of critical interdependencies, methods of communication, and asking others for help. The more specific you can be about the team norms, the easier it will be to bring a new member on board.
  • When team members depart, make to sure to unpack their knowledge and experience before you set them free. Even though many will promise to make time for the old team once in a new job, competing demands make this promise hard to keep. Think about what content is important for the team to have and where the content is stored. Ask the departing member to write up a few notes, including the status of outstanding deliverables, key contacts and lessons learned for team members picking up the slack. The more knowledge that can be codified for others to use later, the less costly the loss to the team.
  • Plan to have the exiting member interviewed by at least one or two team members well in advance, giving the team a deeper understanding of the work this person has done, including important relationships, political nuances and critical success factors. Even better, have someone on the team shadow the departing team member during important conversations, either virtually or face-to-face, to absorb some of the tacit knowledge that may be difficult for the departing team member to describe in words.
  • Negotiate with your departing team members (or their new managers) to borrow a small slice of time over the coming weeks or months, if you have not been able to accurately predict what knowledge is most vital to extract before they leave. Gaining agreement up front will help increase the likelihood that they will make time for you once they’ve left.

When members come and go, you’ll want to keep your team moving ahead quickly, with minimal interruptions or delays. When working with virtual teams, you need a carefully-planned strategy for orienting new members and garnering wisdom from departing members, without overly burdening others on the team. Consult with your team members when creating such an orientation plan, and validate the process once new members have come on board and others have left, revising as needed.

For related articles by Nancy Settle-Murphy, try Leading Remote Teams: Influencing Without Authority, Strengthening Performance of Virtual Teams: Coaching by Proxy and Collaborating Across Cultures: Key to Success for Global Projects.

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