How groups can immediately benefit when new members join

When thinking about a group adding a new person, we often think that while the group will benefit from adding the new person in the long run, there is a cost to the group in the initial period.

But I want to suggest that the act of adding a new person also has immediate benefits to the group, as a new person who doesn’t know the practices and culture of the group can reflect on them as they learn them, ideally leading to lessons and improvements for the whole group.

We can think about this in a few different ways. One considers the group’s on-boarding process: how new people are brought in. The new person, if offered the opportunity, can highlight problems that they find with that process. If the on-boarding process is written down, the new person can test it, and at the least, can provide feedback on what parts are incorrect or don’t make sense. If the on-boarding documentation system permits it (e.g., it’s on a wiki), the new person can actually improve the documentation of the process, and thus, the process. For this to work, the group must be welcoming in general, and welcoming of such feedback in particular. And of course, everything the new person says isn’t going to be right for the group, but the fact that they point at something as a possible problem is something the group should consider.

Similarly, the new person will learn things that are not documented about the group, which includes the culture and practices of the group. A group that is self-reflective and welcomes feedback will provide opportunities for the new person to talk about things they find that seem odd or unexpected to them, and to discuss what they expected instead, which can lead to the new person getting a better understanding of why these things are the way they are, or the group realizing that there is a better way to do some things and changing to that way.

This also holds for projects, for example, software projects. Each new person coming onto the project represents a new user first experiencing the project. For a project that wants to be as appealing as possible to new users, taking advantage of this fact along with the fact that the new project member has a built-in channel to communicate about any issues that the average new user does not have is an opportunity to improve the project. This requires the project to be welcoming and open in terms of communication, and to actively seek out this feedback from the new project member, asking them to test documentation, instructions, guidance, examples, tutorials, APIs, GUIs, etc. and creating methods to get feedback on these tests and to act on it.

I’ve written this post because I realize I don’t always do a good job of taking advantage of the new people who come into my own projects and group, and want to remind myself to do this; I hope this is also useful for others.

Thanks to Kenton McHenry and Zhao Zhang for some feedback on this post.

Published by:

Daniel S. Katz

Chief Scientist at NCSA, Research Associate Professor in CS, ECE, and the iSchool at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; works on systems and tools (aka cyberinfrastructure) and policy related to computational and data-enabled research, primarily in science and engineering

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