You’re new to a project
How do you learn the history behind it?
There’s nothing worse than being the new person (especially when you’re new to an organization) that enthusiastically starts on a project, throws an idea out, and gets it smashed. You clearly triggered something but you don’t know what.
It’s not your fault- you don’t know enough background, history, and context. Other people around the table are sitting there with years of experience, subtle tips and tricks, and relationships that you don’t have.
If you want to contribute meaningfully, you can’t wait years to soak all that in, so how can you accelerate learning that knowledge?
I want to be clear– you can’t always avoid that scenario — there’s no perfect way to learn all the background, history, and context, but there are a few strategies that if employed, will help reduce the probability of that happening.
Context Learning Tactics
Run a history mapping workshop
I’ve gotten the most complete set of information when I’ve been able to run a History Mapping workshop. This activity can be found in more detail in the book Gamestorming, but the essence of it is to build up layers of information with the project team contributing.
Create a timeline, looking 1–3 years back
- You might start by looking at when people joined the organization/the project
- What major organizational events were happening
- What were major milestones, learnings
- What working patterns and rhythms were in place
- What deliverables were made, when, why
I’ve only been able to run 2 of these, so here are a few guerilla tactics if you can’t make that happen.
Connect with History Holders
Start by asking your supervisor, project lead, project manager, “Who should I talk to to learn more about the history of this project? Can you introduce me to them?”
Who you should look for
- Anyone with 2+ years of experience at the company
- Look at least a level above you (go for more if you can!) and as far down as you can.
Questions to ask
- What are the series of events, decisions, etc. that lead to this project?
- Why wasn’t this done before?
- What has been tried before?
- How did it go? How were relationships impacted?
- Any triggers or painful points that I should be aware of?
- Who else should I get some time with? Can you introduce me to them?
Share the Knowledge
It’s very possible that you’re not the only one lacking this context and background — or others may have incomplete pictures. I highly recommend that information like this gets added to a project brief that is accessible to everyone.
What have you done?
What have you done when you’re new to a project? How have you oriented yourself? What questions am I missing? Drop a response!