“These part-time people just aren’t accountable,” a manager complained. “I need people who will be accountable.”
“Part-timers just don’t seem to fit in with the team,” another manager declared. “I do everything I can to impress on them the importance of teamwork and team spirit, but they just don’t gel with the team. What can I do to motivate these people to fit in?”
Both of these manager expressed frustration with people they themselves assigned to multiple teams.
Here’s the news nobody wants to hear: The problem is not the people. It is the part-time assignment to more than one team. Such assignment create hurdles that hinder people’s contribution. The hurdles are structural, not personal. (I’m not talking here about jobs that are less than full-time.)
Allocation acts as a proxy for priority. A manager assigned a tester to a team developing manual tests cases 90% time. He allocated the remaining 10% to another team working on a “critically important” automated test harness. “Critically important” and 10% allocation don’t match.
Furthermore, her time with the automation team wasn’t productive. Most meetings, she spent asking questions, trying to catch up. The arrangement frustrated her and the automation team. Soon, she stopped working on test automation at all.
Many people will opt to spend their time on work that has clear-cut outcomes over work that’s ambiguous. The more clarity around the part-timer’s contribution, the more productive the situation will be for everyone. Clear goals trump muddy goals. Likewise, an unclear working relationship adds difficulty. Lack of clarity around expected contributions and commitments make productive work more difficult.
If the full-time team is cohesive, the part-timer may not be able to fit in. Gelled teams develop their own subcultures. Unspoken rules of engagement, communication patterns, and established relationships hinder fluid engagement. Over time, a part-timer may acculturate, all be it more slowly.
Missing Context & Switching Context
When someone works on a team part time, he is by definition missing part of the context of the team. While the part-timer is off doing something else, the full-time team makes decisions, solves problems, and exchanges information. Documentation isn’t sufficient to transmit such implicit knowledge. Big decisions and events come through. Nuances get lost. Each time the part-timer re-enters the team, the team has moved on from the last time the part-timer participated.
Depending on the nature of the work, a part-timer may never achieve productive contribution. Creating something new is an iterative process. People build up their understanding incrementally. Their mental model of the product grows along with the product.
For a part-timer, the object of their learning is constantly changing. Their cognitive task is far more difficult. Valentino Braitenberg calls this the Principle of Downhill Invention and Uphill Analysis. A part-timer may never completely grasp a complex product. The structure of the assignment creates the appearance of incompetence.
Design Before You Assign
What can managers do to improve the situation? First look at the work and how the part-timer needs to contribute. Design based on the needs of the work before you assign the worker to the team part-time.
Three Questions to Ask About the Work
► Is the contribution time-limited, meaning that part-timers skills are needed for several days, but not for the duration of the project?
Maybe the person only needs to contribute at some critical point. Perhaps he is only needed for one or two iterations, when the team is working on a particular feature. Consider contracting for the person to focus full attention for those periods of time.
► Can the contribution be batched so the part-timer interacts with the team for a day or two a week?
Dedicate a day or two a week. Reduce context switching. This requires more clarity and coordination from the full-time team. However, it makes better use of everyone’s time in the long run.
► Is the part-timer needed for hands-on work, or can he act as a reviewer, consultant, or coach to members of the full-time team?
Some teams need a certain skill a few hours a week, but over a long period of time. In this situation, it probably makes sense to develop the skill on the team. The part-timer acts as an expert coach or reviewer until the full-time team members are self-sufficient.
Think “Resource to the Team,” Rather than “Part-Time Team Member”
A person can act as a resource to a full-time team without being a member of the team. The team can contract for deliverables, consulting, review, or time. After you understand the nature of the work and the contribution needed, work with the full-time team and the person whose skills are needed to develop explicit agreements. Don’t rely on happenstance and assumptions. Reach agreement on how the full-time team and part-timer will work together, how the part-timer will contribute, and how the full-time team will keep the part-timer in the loop. Don’t expect he’ll gel completely as a member of the team–because he won’t.
As an individual contributor, when a manager assigns you part-time, take matters into your own hands. Clarify with the team. Negotiate both your relationship and your commitment. Look for discrete contributions that fit the time allocation and don’t require you to learn a constantly changing complex system.
Don’t Count on the Exception Case
Sometimes I see groups in which almost everyone is part time. Sometimes a group working together part time will gel, usually when they have a long, shared history. Don’t expect groups made up entirely (or mostly) of part-timers to gel as a team without time and attention to creating a cohesive whole. As long as the group is accomplishing its goal and managing the interdependencies between tasks, that’s OK.
It may look simple on paper to say a team needs a specialized skill X amount of the time, but by analyzing the nature of the work and being explicit about part-time arrangements, you will help the team and the part-timer work together more productively.
Updated, October 2020.