Onboarding people into product teams
Tips for how to mitigate problems I've observed when bringing new people into product teams.
A few example problems I’ve seen, particulary in smaller organisations:
Lacking critical context.
Not knowing who to ask about what; lacking understanding details of product space; out of date documentation.
Unclear expectations and responsibilities.
Progression over first weeks/months; roles on specific projects; cross-functional team awareness; how to operate within teams.
Constrained existing team members.
Unsure of how best to help onboard new starter; approach lacks consistency; balancing own work vs helping onboard.
Tip 1: 1-pager reference doc
A single document acting as canonical source for the most important info, delivered to the new starter by their manager at the start of their first day, containing:
- New starter checklist
- Org chart, org + team missions, current goals, key people
- List of critical resources and tools
- Summary of which groups/chats they've already been added to
- List of recommended (but optional) groups/chats/channels to join, broke down by org, function, social
In the 1-pager: New starter checklist
A breakdown of what the new starter's first 3 weeks should look like:
- Establish an overview of relevant products, org structure and roadmaps/plans
- Meet with key team members and partners
- Start digging into first ramp-up project, partnering with manager and/or mentor
- Schedule and attend any training on tooling
- Set up recurring 1:1s to set up with key peers, or ensure those peers have already set them up
- Double check they've been added to all required meetings, and choose which optional meetings to attend
- Double check they've been added to all relevant groups/chats
In the 1-pager: Org chart, org + team missions, current goals, key people
- Visual org chart that covers reporting structure and people involved
- Current mission and goals of the new starter's closest team/sub-team
- List of links to all relevant team/sub-team roadmaps and context docs
- List of key cross-functional people to meet around your specific area (by function, team, location)
Tip 2: Career cold start conversations
Really effective self-onboarding method from Boz for new starters. Check his post. Basically treat your new job/role as if you're starting a new career, and gather as much context as possible in every 1:1 with your new peers.
- Get 30 mins with 1 person (i.e. the first person from your list of key people). For the first 25 mins: ask them to tell you everything they think you should know. For the next 3 mins: ask them what they think the biggest challenges facing the team/org are. For the last 2 mins: ask them to tell you who else you should speak to.
- Repeat #1 for every name you’re given. Don’t stop until there are no new names.
- Bonus points: ask each person's expectations of you and what key opportunities they see for you or your function within the team.
Meeting so many people this way can be pretty intense. There will be a lot of new information. But critically, it gives you:
- A framework for integrating new information quickly, a route into the most critical discussions that are happening, and a sense of the language and terminology people use
- A cheat sheet for early impact, because they've all described the biggest challenges
- A map of influence across the org/team, because you'll see the same names being mentioned over and over
Tip 3: Crash course ‘bootcamps’
Organising function-specific intensive training courses can be incredibly effective. These could last anywhere from a single afternoon, to multiple weeks. While these are fairly well established now in larger companies, they may be a challenge for smaller organisations with limited resources. Do what you can!
- Expectations of your function (the roles played in teams) and archetypes (what different versions of this role can look like, depending on people's specific skillsets)
- Training on key tooling (protoyping tools, development environments) and processes (models for how to get work done)
- Exploration of foundational principles and guardrails (operating or working principles, collaborative models)
- Overviews of specific teams and projects
- Examples/critiques of past work to gain an understanding of what acceptable vs the best work looks like
Detail: Creating ‘time out’ forums
Ensuring regular time with your function peers (e.g. a design meetup once per month) to take a step back from day-to-day work and reflect on the state of our roles, processes, methods and learnings – to share subsequently evolve as a function.
- Safe spaces to create stronger community through sharing stories of how prior challenges were overcome
- Levelling-up specific hard or soft skills through informal Q&As
- Could be IC-only or inclusive of managers too
Tip 4: Land work early
It's crucial to get one or two early wins under a new starter's belt to build confidence and start establishing their cross-functional network. Choosing the right projects isn't easy. This should be down to the manager, but wants to involve the input of other cross-functional peers. I'd recommend:
- Define 2-3 projects at 1-3 weeks each
- Ensure they're neatly packaged; there should be a solid product brief for each
- Pick projects that play to the new starter's strengths; the projects shouldn't be easy, but shouldn't be so challenging that they require constant help
- Choose projects that will required strong cross-functional collaboration, so relationships can develop early
If these ramp up projects get completed quicker than expected, encourage the new starter to:
- Pull existing work from roadmaps
- Understand how new work gets defined (writing briefs, building momentum for new ideas)
- Understand how work informs roadmaps
Tip 5: Establish early personal context
During early 1:1s with their manager (and to some degree their peers) the new starter should be able to achieve clarity on:
- How and when they work best (types of projects, best working times, collaborative vs quiet time)
- What work energises vs drains you (specific project types of tools; exploratory vs optimisation work)
- Preferred ways of receiving feedback (public vs private)
- Key strengths and growth areas (across both hard and soft skills)
- Bonus points: document this info for everyone in a company-wide space (so everyone knows what everyone is working on)
Tip 6: Clear expectations between manager and IC
This goes two ways: getting clarity on what the IC (individual contributor) should expect of their manager, and what the manager expects of the IC. Examples of what to cover:
- Documented list of expected responsibilies and behaviours, for both manager and IC
- Examples of how the IC can hold the manager accountable for commitments
- Examples of how the IC can ‘manage up’ to make best use of time with their manager, and provide actionable feedback
- Definition of how the IC will be held accountable for their progress, how to ask for actionable feedback, and work with their manager to develop and deliver on growth plans
Tip 7: Ensuring buddy and/or mentor figures
Having at least one buddy or mentor figure from day one can be a critical lifeline for a new starter. The manager should organise this for the incoming new starter. This relationship should provide:
- Day-to-day tactical guidance (tooling advice, people to ask, examples of good work or how to navigate situations)
- Regular schuduled time together (e.g. a weekly 1:1)
- More effective use of time with manager; taking care of day-to-day tactical advice with a mentor frees us time with manager to focus more on strategic advice and growth plan progress