Coach New People to Success

Johanna Rothman describes a hectic situation involving having to deal with four people and four different projects. The folks involved are in over their heads and Johanna can't even tell if these people are qualified for their job.

I’ve been having some strange email conversations with two testers, one business analyst, and a project manager. Yes, a total of four new people. They have each found jobs on projects. And, they are in over their heads. Each of them wrote to me, hoping I would help.

The testers wanted to know how to write test plans and tests. The business analyst wanted to know when to get involved with the project and how to write requirements for her project. The project manager wanted to know how to organize the Gantt chart for his supposedly agile project. I told him he didn’t need a Gantt.

These poor people. In each case, I asked, “Do you want private coaching from me?” Oh, no, they replied. No, I don’t. Each one of them said so. They just wanted the answer to their question.

Well, the answer to their question requires private coaching, because the answer is project- and context-dependent, I explained. After a bunch of back and forth, I told them to start reading because they don’t know how to ask the right question. (Yes, that sounds arrogant. Sorry.) I also told them to talk to the rest of their project teams, and ask for help, because floundering by themselves is a no-win situation.

This is a management failure. It might also be a team failure. That sounds harsh, but why else would these other well-meaning people who want to succeed come to an outside expert? They don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know who to ask down the hall. But, the answers are inside their buildings. Or, on their wikis. Or on their intranets.

And, if the answers are not written there, an external expert can’t help them find the answers. The only way they can find the answers is by talking with the other project team members. “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

There is a reason I advocate a buddy system for new people in Hiring Geeks That Fit. With a buddy system, new people learn how to do what they need to do for this project in this context. Once they learn that, they can generalize it to the larger context.

These folks are in over their heads. Are they qualified for their jobs? I can’t tell. That’s because I suspect there are funky and suspect requirements for these projects. I think some of these organizations are in a transition state where they are not quite agile and not quite waterfall and their project teams are not quite sure what to do. That means new hires need even more coaching than they might otherwise receive.

Managers need to conduct one-on-ones, especially with new people. Managers might not need to perform the on-the-job coaching, but they need to make sure the coaching gets done by someone. Right now, all I see is the people get plunked into a project and they are not set up to succeed. They are flailing. They find me, because I write a lot.

So they ask me what they think is a reasonable question. But, it’s not reasonable, because it requires knowing about the project. These folks are frustrated, I sound like an arrogant jerk, and everyone loses.

Managers, have you hired someone recently? Are you concerned about that person’s performance? Make sure you are not contributing to their lack of performance. Start having one-on-ones.

Teams, do you have a new person? Make sure someone is coaching that new person. Make sure that person becomes a real member of your team. Don’t let that new person start asking some random expert on the web basic questions about your project. You can do better than that. Let that new person ask the expert hard questions about your project.

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