Properly Tackle Inexperience on Project Teams

Put new people on the right teams and take specific steps to build know-how.

By Adnan Siddiqui, ConcepSys Solutions LLC

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The engineering and construction industry doesn’t have enough experienced professionals. This lack of “bench strength” affects all project team roles, from technical specialists and project managers to construction managers and procurement leaders. So, teams usually must include inexperienced members. This article presents some techniques and practices for rapidly and successfully integrating such people.

Before implementing any practices to improve productivity and work quality of inexperienced team members, it’s important to recognize that such workers fall into two broad categories. The first group consists of recently hired young graduates. They have high aptitude and learn quickly but lack extensive experience in delivering projects. The other group includes veteran working engineers or retirees without direct project experience. While some practices we’ll cover are effective for both groups, others may require slight modification to work more effectively for each group. So, always start by identifying the extent of inexperienced team members and how many fall into each of these two groups.

Some best practices for mitigating risks from inexperience are:
• risk-based assignment of people to project teams;
• case-based training and simulation;
• formal mentoring and peer networking systems;
• project knowledge base and Wikis (user-generated encyclopedias);
and
• improved lessons-learned sharing via case study discussions.

Let’s examine each in a bit more detail.

Risk-based assignment of people to project teams. Conventional wisdom recommends assigning inexperienced people to smaller projects. However, this guideline isn’t always the best approach. Instead, use a formal risk-based project staffing system to determine where best to deploy these people. Such a system combines risk profiles of available projects with experience and skill profiles of available team members into one assignment system. Each project is evaluated against parameters considered critical (Table 1) and then against each person’s experience (Table 2).

After the project type and employee profile parts have been populated, the system is used to generate reports to identify any gaps and mismatches between project and team members’ profiles. For example, a report could pinpoint a project with new process technology but no assigned team members with experience in dealing with new technology. More importantly, reports also could identify projects without mismatches between the project profile and the team member profiles. Putting inexperienced team members on low-mismatch projects, even if they’re large, is the best course of action. Adding one inexperienced person to an otherwise-well-matched team won’t significantly impact the project. This risk-based system also could improve assignments for small projects — by identifying which can better accommodate inexperienced members due to lower risk profiles.

While some companies informally follow such an approach, making the investment to formalize this system is the key to really getting the most out of it. Implementing such a system won’t require new IT programs or tools — it’s relatively easy to modify most time-sheet-management programs used in the industry to provide this functionality.

Case-based training and simulation. A strong training system is vital for quick integration of new team members. Most situations allow training people for a few days before they’re expected to start contributing to project work. Online training may be more appropriate for younger employees because they probably used such online learning tools in college. On the other hand, veteran staff may learn better by reading paper-based training materials. For project leadership training, advances in computer simulation and training now allow realistic project simulations that can be used to accelerate the training curve while providing customized feedback to each individual. While such a system may require significant initial investment, the marginal cost for training each additional person is virtually zero once a robust training simulation program has been implemented. Computer-based training also could foster technical specialist development by presenting online problems and solutions to sample technical design problems.

Formal mentoring and peer networking systems. Initial training, no matter how sophisticated and effective, should be reinforced with well-developed mentoring and peer networking systems. These can reduce the actual calendar time needed to develop expertise.

An internal social-networking system is an excellent candidate for improving effectiveness of peer networks for various team roles (and indirectly even can help in employee retention). By creating professional groups based on roles within these networks, companies can develop an actively engaged and interacting community of peers to support newcomers. Inexperienced members can use their sub-networks to identify formal mentors as well as for informal contacts. Young graduates already are familiar with this approach thanks to Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. Some firms, the Dow Chemical Co. for example, also have invested in such networks for current employees and alumni.

Social networking software now is well developed enough to have a simple easy-to-use interface suitable for even the most ardent computer skeptic.

Traditional formal mentoring programs also can help pass along knowledge. However, to be effective instead of frustrating to mentees, a program must provide training on how to mentor, as well as tangible rewards to the mentor. Establishing a simple matching program to assign a mentor without formal training or ongoing monitoring of mentor/mentee engagement can quickly lead to disenchantment and failure of mentoring efforts.

Project knowledge bases and Wikis. These also can serve as useful tools. A knowledge base is an indexed and categorized collection of questions with answers to issues and situations commonly encountered during project execution. It’s a good way to automatically capture knowledge from soon-to-retire workers. A wiki explains technical terms. Both can be implemented with minimal investment in software. However, software alone isn’t enough — for knowledge bases and wikis to be effective it’s important to provide proper incentives to experienced employees to contribute.

Improved lessons-learned sharing via case study discussions. While most companies require project leaders and participants to submit a lessons-learned report at the conclusion of a project, such reports usually are filed in a central database with poor accessibility and retrieval interfaces. In addition, the laundry-list-like content of such reports isn’t conducive to effective learning — nor are the lack of feedback or practice when trying to digest the information.

So, instead implement a case study system of learning. Don’t require project teams to submit a long list of lessons — ask them to prepare a case study around the most critical lesson learned. It should provide a brief overview of the technical or execution challenge encountered. Make the case study open-ended to encourage discussion and brainstorming by its users. To increase effectiveness, require the project leader to conduct a few discussion sessions for inexperienced personnel. Case study learning has proven to be very effective in teaching open-ended concepts within business schools where each situation demands a unique application of ideas and tools. This method can yield dramatic results in increased application of lessons learned in future projects.

Start Now
The practices we’ve covered can quickly help turn inexperienced people into productive members of project teams. Some can be implemented rapidly while others may take a few months to complete. Information technology is an enabler for each practice but achieving desired results demands incentives and culture changes. Don’t implement all practices at the same time. Instead, match the proposed benefits of each against project team needs and company culture and start with the highest value practices.


Adnan Siddiqui, P.E., is principal of ConceptSys Solutions LLC, Houston. E-mail him at aasiddiqui@concepsyssolutions.com.
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