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);
• 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.
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