Return on Investment (ROI) is one of the fundamental principles of business. Any business contemplating enterprise initiatives attempts to clearly see and understand the ROI. The use of ROI is no different for consultants as new projects, employees and business expansions must all be able to deliver a financial return on the cost of the investment whether that investment is money, time or some other resource.

One of the most fundamental ways we as consultants create a strong ROI is by investing our time into other employees during their initial time on a project. Though called many things – ‘onboarding', ‘ramping up', etc – I'll refer to this process as ‘level setting' as the main goal is to bring new project members to the same level as the team. When given the attention it deserves, level setting creates a ripe environment for successful project delivery.

The Symptom
We've all been in this situation before: you have just joined a new project, the team is working hard to meet deadlines and deliver high quality products and you're spending two weeks trying to get all of the right passwords and access just to start doing your role. In the meantime, the team sends you a bunch of generic project introduction documents and you try to get a good grasp on the current-state and how you can contribute. After a while, terms start to blend together and you realize that until you can actually obtain access to relevant areas of your client's business, you won't really ‘get it.' You would like to sit down with the team and bounce ideas off of them to test your understanding but you don't want to hold up their important work. You wonder how best to use the start-up time until you have the accesses you need.

The Cure
Level setting applies the concept of ROI to the project start-up process by investing more one-on-one time at the start of a project for new employees, as a result, new employees are far better equipped to contribute quicker, minimize time spent asking questions and helping boost the efficiency of the team.

While possibly being seen as interfering with day-to-day activities of the project team, level setting pays significant dividends in the long run. A new project member will have to learn the required information at some point during the project. Unfortunately, though, instead of capitalizing on the availability and free time of a new project member for a comprehensive level setting, most project teams wait to truly explain core concepts of the project until they are needed for a current task.

The three methods below serve as useful tools to help getting new team mates up to speed and break this trend.

  1. Teach it Back – One of the most effective ways to make sure someone has understood you is to ask them to repeat back what they have heard. I would suggest a step further. After taking enough time to fully explain the business needs, the current state and the goals of the project, ask the new project member to ‘teach‘ back to you what the current project is. Pretend you know nothing about the project - would you understand why your project team has been brought on based on the explanation given? (Also, asking the new employee to explain gives you the opportunity to pose questions about areas not completely understood in a non-confrontational way.)
  2. Shadowing – Since there are often prolonged stretches of time where a new project member does not have access, it can be really helpful for an existing teammate to actually walk through specific tasks with new teammates by their side. This process of shadowing sets aside time for the experienced project member to explain and show actual tasks. Moreover, the new team member is able to ask questions during each step of the process and see programs and processes that may not be clear through a written or verbal explanation.
  3. Draw Draw Draw – People learn through hearing, seeing and touching. Since information is not tangible, seeing and hearing are the only tools we have for explanation. So, diagrams or any sort of illustration are essential tools to further explain the operations of the project. I recently wrote a post about the importance of diagrams, but whiteboards are just as useful for level setting. Most importantly, level setting is an interactive process; just forwarding all of the technical design documents won't adequately explain the project. Take time to sit down one-on-one and walk through the diagram step by step.

Level setting is a simple concept that often gets overlooked during the initial stages for a new project member. While this is understandable – we're all busy, after all – it can lead to new project members being slower to fully grasp essential concepts, other team members getting bogged down with future questions and limiting the efficiency of the team. Investing time to level set using the above tactics will do much to help minimize these pitfalls. And while there's certainly an up-front cost to using working resources to level set new members, the return on that investment will ensure that the new team member will grasp key concepts quickly, contribute in a shorter time and, ultimately, deliver a better product.