Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 21, Issue 7;   February 17, 2021:

Remote Hires: Inquiry

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When knowledge workers join organizations as remote hires, they must learn what's expected of them and how it fits with what everyone else is doing. This can be difficult when everyone is remote. A systematic knowledge-based inquiry procedure can help.
A jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece

A jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece, and a candidate for the gap in the puzzle. This might be an apt metaphor for the process a new hire uses to figure out what's happening in the organization and why.

When a new hire joins an organization, a period of adjustment follows. The people of the organization and the new hire must form relationships with each other. That takes time. When the new hire is remote, relationship formation takes even more time, because the opportunities for interaction are fewer and because interactions mediated by computer and telephone are less conducive to relationship formation.

Forming relationships is only part of the task of integrating new hires into the organization. Another part is forming a shared mental model of the task at hand. That, too, is more difficult when the new hire is remote.

This post is part of a series about integrating remote hires into knowledge organizations. In this part, I examine an approach to the part of the integration effort that's related to forming a shared mental model of the task at hand.

A specific case: the remote hire project manager

Remote hires come in all shapes and sizes — executives, middle managers, directors, project and program managers, team members, consultants, contractors, and, I'm sure, many more. Unique issues can arise for each kind of remote hire. To attempt to describe in this short post the full catalog of those issues would be foolhardy. But it is possible, and valuable, to address a specific case that is common in itself, and which has much in common with other specific cases. And the case I've chosen is the remote project manager.

Project managers have no supervisory responsibilities. In that respect they differ from executives, middle managers, and directors. But the remote hire project manager must learn about the work at hand, just as all remote hires must do. And the scope of what they must learn is broad enough to provide a rich array of examples that span what almost all categories of remote hires must learn about their new positions.

And so, in this post, I use a remote hire project manager as a framework for discussing the issues of integrating a remote hire knowledge worker into an existing organization. And as in previous parts of this series, I'll call our remote hire Rhett.

Asymmetry of the integration effort

The effort to integrate Rhett into the organization is largely asymmetric. That is, while Rhett devotes almost all of his initial daily effort to getting to know the people of the organization and their work, most of the people in the organization go about their work paying relatively little attention to Rhett. Those who plan to work closely with him are, of course, notable exceptions.

Reasons for this asymmetry aren't difficult to imagine. Rhett's ability to perform is strongly affected by how quickly he can reach an understanding of what others are doing. But Rhett's colleagues are, for the most part, already carrying out their functions. The degree to which their own work will be affected by Rhett's activity is probably closely related to their efforts to integrate Rhett into the organization.

In any case, Rhett most likely must be proactive about gathering information about the organization and its people. His efforts might not be reciprocated, but waiting for others to provide him with the information he needs is a strategy that almost surely will fail.

The role of inquiry

Rhett's success in finding his place in the knowledge-oriented organization can be greatly enhanced and accelerated if he adopts a systematic approach to learning what he needs to know. That approach is a form of investigation that I call inquiry.

Inquiry is a widely used approach to knowledge creation, acquisition, and development that appears in many disparate fields. Examples include:

We can regard a knowledge-oriented organization as a complex collaboration. Before the arrival of a new remote hire, the people of the organization each had a mental model of what the collaboration was doing. Their models might not have been in perfect alignment, but any misalignment was either unknown to the people of the organization, or minor enough so that it caused no material conflict.

When Rhett joins the organization, he also has a mental model of the work of the organization. Rhett's model is necessarily less complete, and probably misaligned more than most, but it is nevertheless a model.

Rhett's immediate task is to revise and improve his model, with the help of the other people in the organization. For the most part, at first, Rhett observes and asks questions. For the most part, at first, his collaborators go about their work and answer Rhett's questions. As time passes, the flow of knowledge becomes more symmetric, until Rhett is fully integrated into the organization.

This post describes those early stages, when the flow of knowledge is mostly in Rhett's direction. In all but the most advanced organizational cultures, the responsibility for creating and elaborating Rhett's mental model of the work underway is Rhett's alone. The people he works with are willing to help, but because they're generally busy with work they regard as their own, the help they can provide to Rhett is limited. It's up to Rhett to figure out what's happening around him.

Most remote hires conduct their inquiries in a haphazard way. Some make notes; some do not. In the next section I describe a process for conducting these inquiries that I've found yields results of value to both the remote hire and the organization at large.

An inquiry procedure for remote hires

Joining The success of remote hires in finding
their places in knowledge-oriented
organizations can be greatly enhanced
and accelerated if they adopt a
systematic approach to learning
what they need to know
any reasonably complex collaboration, and going from a standing start (new remote hire) to a respected contributor requires a vast array of knowledge. The remote hire must get to know the people and the work; where their work has come from, and where it's going. Complicating matters is a property of most collaborations: different people hold different views of what the team is doing now, what the team has done so far, and what the team intends to do next. Some of these differences are unknown to the team as a whole, and they become visible only in the context of the remote hire's inquiry.

Some naturally gifted people can acquire this knowledge by just diving in, meeting everyone, and figuring it out. But for the rest of us, here's a procedure that I've found helpful.

  • When you realize there's something you don't know or understand, express it as a question and capture that question in writing.
  • Seek an answer to that question, or wait for the answer to come along.
  • Make conjectures about answers you're still seeking, and track those conjectures.
  • When you find an answer to a question, capture it.
  • When you find a partial answer to a question, or a piece of information that seems like it might be related to the answer to a question, capture it.
  • Track any inconsistencies between answers provided by different sources.
  • Give every question an identifier, to help you when you refer to it from other questions or the answers to questions.
  • Recognize that the answers to questions might only raise more questions. Capture any questions that arise in this way.
  • When you record either a question or an answer, record also how it came about and who helped you find it.

Repeat until you have no new questions. In my experience, there are always more questions.

Last words

Recording dates and times of entries might be helpful in some cases. It's up to you. The main thing is to gradually assemble a cache of questions and answers. If you do this in a disciplined way, the cache will grow rapidly into a valuable reference. Whether or not you're a new hire at the moment, there surely are some concepts unfamiliar to you, but nevertheless floating around in your environment. Maybe it's time to start an inquiry about your own environment to clear up some of these mysteries. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Risk Acceptance: Naïve Realism  Next Issue

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