“We’re moving so fast we don’t have the luxury of formal onboarding. We just kind of throw them in there. They’re smart, they’ll figure it out.” This is what we’ve been hearing from too many alliance professionals about their approach to onboarding new project team and governance committee members. In taking this position, alliance professionals are overlooking a key value adding opportunity: Helping the new member know what they need to know to establish the right priorities and engage in the right activities to accomplish what they as a member of the team must, and to quickly get connected and engaged with the rest of the team.
When this engagement and connectedness occur, productivity results. The complexity of the alliance and the complications it introduces to how the team member conducts their work within the confines of a single entity can be quickly overcome. It helps the team maintain momentum and not get slowed down as the new team member “figures it out.” Absent proximity to one another in our remote work environment, being engaged and connected to the work of the team takes on even greater importance. It builds familiarity and enables trust to grow as the new member internalizes the team or committee’s behavioral norms.
In alliance operational effectiveness assessments of complex alliances we’ve conducted over the past few years (a service we call VitalSigns), only 45 to 60 percent of governance committee and project team respondents report a formal onboarding—70 percent is the benchmark we look for to tell us that something occurs successfully and with reasonable consistency. Additionally, this formal onboarding generally focuses on what the work is, rather than how the team or committee is collaborating to carry out their obligations. This has led us to conclude that one of the fundamental services alliance professionals should consistently apply—especially on complex alliances—is not happening with the completeness and regularity it should.
Team Turnover as a Value-Adding Opportunity
Project teams and governance committees regularly experience both planned and unplanned turnover. Managing it as a net plus for the team takes a consistent approach that has three components: the role, the norms, and the work (see Figure 1).
1. The Role – The standards and expectations of alliance governance committee and project team members
It may be counterintuitive at this point in time, but there are still many people in the industry that have not worked directly with a partner, never mind served on an alliance governance committee. Alliance professionals should not assume new members have experience—or that their experience aligns with current expectations of the role.
Working with partners requires a set of skills we’ve covered in some of our writings on collaboration—it also requires having an appreciation of each party’s rights and interests in the alliance. Governance committee members are in the special situation of representing both the alliance and their company. They must make decisions in the interest of the alliance, not just their company, while also protecting their company’s interests.
Alliance professionals should establish standard guidelines describing the responsibilities of project team and governance committee members. The following is a non-exhaustive list to get you started:
- Have a general understanding of the purpose and limits of the alliance agreement
- Ensure the function they represent follows through on its commitments and deliverables in accordance with alliance plans
- Serve as their function’s representative to the partner, building an appropriate working relationship with the direct counterpart, navigating your organization for the partner
- Be knowledgeable about your company’s interests on issues that impact their function or geography
- Provide input to and follow the guidance of the committee chairperson/team lead
- Work with the alliance manager to ensure effective and efficient cross-functional collaboration
- Work towards reconciling and resolving differences with the alliance partner
2. The Norms – The expected way of behaving to bridge differences, collaborate effectively, and build a one-team mentality
Alliances are most successful when they adopt an entity mindset and think of themselves as “Alliance, Inc.” They align around a North Star that defines the value they intend to produce for patients or customers and the partners. They use that North Star to guide the decisions they make, the priorities they set, and how resources are allocated.
These alliance teams develop ways of overcoming differences in their individual company’s strategies, structures, processes, and ways of working and develop the “alliance way” of doing things. This applies to everything from how they conduct meetings to how they navigate different risk tolerances, decision making processes, and team empowerment. They work hard to understand each other to keep that one-team mentality, which helps prevent teams unproductively spinning around an issue.
Norms are often captured in team charters, rules of the road, or operating principles established at the startup of an alliance and hopefully, periodically reviewed. There are likely others that develop over time that may be harder to capture. To whatever degree an alliance’s culture can be described and communicated, it should be part of the onboarding process.
3. The Work – The specific responsibilities of the company, governance committee, or project team
This third component of onboarding is the one that happens the most frequently—bringing the new member up to speed on the specific scope, focus, plans, deliverables, and measures of the body he is joining. Typically, the alliance professional has some sort of contract summary or “briefing book” developed during the startup phase that explains the basic facts of the alliance. Additionally, the individual should receive current plans, recent minutes, and past deliverables. They need access to shared digital platforms and guidance in how to use them, including taxonomies and key definitions. It is also helpful to share the history of the alliance, including key decisions that have been made so that there isn’t a push to revisit topics that have already been addressed.
The Onboarding Process
This comprehensive approach to onboarding new team members produces immediate benefit. They are engaged and quickly connected to the work of the team. They take initiative and are more secure in offering of themselves. They quickly add value and don’t waste their time “figuring it out” or waste the team’s time by going down a garden path.
This need not be an overly time-consuming process. Alliance professionals should develop a standard package and meeting agenda. A quick video about the alliance culture could be produced by interviewing key members. It is easy to do with Zoom and other collaboration platforms. What’s most important is that alliance professionals consistently provide this value-adding service to aid project teams and governance committees in being agile, keeping momentum, and being as productive as they can.