Ask EIG: 3 Ways to Successfully Onboard New Team Members

By Jackson Nickerson

April 5, 2013

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Knowing that there are often new people involved in teams and or decisions, how do you ensure “bee-in” for them rather than just “buy-in”


Last February on "Ask EIG", I introduced a leadership concept called "bee-in", which represents a specific set of leadership processes that not only helps with diversity and inclusion but also helps teams build trust and create understanding.  Teams that develop these characteristics have deep commitment to each other and to their projects and, as a result, are more likely to successfully discover and implement valuable solutions. 

In contrast, asking individuals to “buy-in” implies that they weren’t important enough to be included in the conversation in the first place.  Leaders who seek "buy-in" often don’t develop much trust and understanding within their teams and rarely generate commitment to either the project or each other.  Worse, some team members may refuse to "buy-in" and work to slow or kill the project.  The end result is that projects relying on buy-in rarely succeed in achieving their desired performance goals and may fail entirely.

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There is no doubt that changing team membership can cause your team—and project—to unravel and fail.  Adding or changing team members can quickly diminish commitment.  Without being with the team from the beginning, why would a new team member be committed to any decision others previously made?  Questioning prior decisions and injecting different views and preferences can create team conflict that undermines trust, impedes understanding, and reverses prior commitments.  Moreover, if a new team member controls a critical resource but is not collaborative or has a domineering personality then team commitment quickly can collapse leaving few options but to fail or to shift to autocratic decision-making.  In other words, bringing new people on the team and doing so late-in-the-game can erode "bee-in," making it necessary to switch to "buy-in" and all that comes with it.

You may want to lead your team using a "bee-in" approach but how can you succeed if your team members change over time?  How can you develop and sustain trust and understanding as well as commitment if people are rotating on and off your project?  Is there anything you can do to lead in such circumstances or is "bee-in" a naive ideal that simply can’t be reached for some projects?

To develop useful strategies for maintaining "bee-in" it is useful to identify a few common reasons why team members change.  All too often:

  1. teams are formed without thinking about what information and knowledge sets are needed and who will be critical to implementation efforts.  In other words, not enough thought went into thinking about who should be on the team and hence the initial team composition is chosen poorly requiring future additions.
  2. new team members do not have much knowledge of the project and its history and do not have appropriate expectations about their role moving forward on the team. 
  3. project complexity and duration necessitate the coming and going of team members. For instance, complex information technology projects and weapons systems using a waterfall approach to project management can last many years and may necessitate changing team members as various specializations are needed at various times or because of employee turnover. 

In response to these common reasons for new people joining teams, three strategies may help you sustain bee-in.

In sum, my recommendation is to choose teams wisely so you won’t need new team members, invite broad awareness of and participation from your community so that new team members already are in the process, and restructure projects so that are short enough to maintain team membership.  Can you always execute these strategies?  No.  Nonetheless, I suspect that these strategies can used more than they are to maintain "bee-in" and increase project success.

Duce a mente (may you lead by thinking),

Jackson Nickerson

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By Jackson Nickerson

April 5, 2013