Infiltrating an Organization (or: Joining a New Team)
It takes some time to integrate into a new team. I always feel like an outsider at first. As I build friendships and trust, I’m able to contribute with increasing effectiveness. Having noticed some patterns, I’ve been able to make the process faster and smoother using a few simple tricks.
Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development describe what happens when a team is formed. His theory has four stages: forming, storming, norming, and performing. As I stared writing this post, I noticed that the stages I was describing lined up fairly well with his. It’s important to note that I’m talking about joining an existing team, where he talks about a team being formed entirely from new people.
I will relate the stages I’ve noticed using his labels, but leave it as an exercise for the reader to compare to his more detailed descriptions.
When I first join a team, everyone is as clueless about me as I am about them. Anything I can do to facilitate interaction here is valuable. I like to set out a couple trinkets on my desk, things that show my personality and interests. This creates openings for others to start conversations, which can help to break the ice. It can be awkward and uncomfortable as the “new guy”, but getting through this sooner really helps speed things up.
I also tend to ask a lot of questions while I’m getting my bearings. The hard part here is gathering information without judging or commenting too much. Honesty is important, but this early in the process, it can be more damaging than helpful. It’s easy to forget that things were built with constraints and assumptions I wasn’t there to experience.
That being said, looking things over with a fresh set of eyes can uncover many interesting things. So that I don’t lose track of them, I write every idea and observation down and revisit them later.
After a month or two, I start getting used to what’s going on, and the problems the team is solving. The things that seemed strange before may now be routine, but some will still get in my way. My productivity improves, but I don’t feel like a full member of the team yet.
This is when I start going through my list of suggestions. I remove the items that no longer make sense, and then prioritize the remainder. I work through my list slowly, applying gentle pressure, trying to ask questions of various people on the team. Sometimes the questions receive insightful answers, other times they provoke good changes. Occasionally they uncover issues with team dynamics or lost political battles. All of these outcomes are valuable in different ways.
Essentially, I am trying to develop my voice. By waiting until I’ve been in the team a bit, I have a much firmer foundation to launch from. Being honest, and being able to disagree respectfully are necessary to fully contributing to the team. Just remember to take it slowly. If you come on too strong too suddenly you can alienate your coworkers.
With time, everyone gets used to me and my style. Once they realize that I can challenge opinions without judging their source, things become a lot smoother.
After a while, I run out of questions. At this point, I will have a pretty good understanding of the architecture, the history and opinions that shaped it, and have a rough idea where people stand on the important issues. Others should have a good idea where I stand too.
This is when I start fine-tuning my personal processes, and trying to resolve anything that’s still holding me back. I expect to have a good relationship with my manager by this point. I would be bringing up more serious issues earlier, but now I want to start bringing up everything else. If our relationship strong enough, this is when I would try to fix that also.
Sometimes I never make it to this stage. I might be spending too much energy arguing, or feel like my contributions are not appreciated. If I don’t make it here within a few months, and have no clear path to improve things, I know it’s time to brush up my resume.
With good working relationships, enough context about the problem space, and all my major issues resolved, I can now focus on getting some work done.