Finding the Right Project for Each Employee
Your employees each have different strengths and weaknesses. Accurately matching each person with the best project for their unique skills and temperament can improve your team’s productivity and morale.
How do you learn to do this effectively?
Let’s begin with two stories from my own career.
During one assignment, I worked with a team of generalists who had a broad range of responsibilities and expertise. Part of my job was to interface with other groups throughout the enterprise working with similar technologies but in different lines of business or applied to different contexts. To facilitate this interdepartmental interaction, my office was geographically separated from my immediate team.
To do this job successfully, I not only had to complete my own projects for the team, but I had to spend time building relationships with others throughout the organization whose experience could benefit my team.
Being an introvert, and being rather inexperienced at the time, it was difficult for me to sustain this level of contact successfully. My managers provided some of the guidance and tools I needed, but at the time, I didn’t have enough of the skills necessary to accomplish the vision they laid out.
In the end, our team got value out of my assignment, and we fostered some of the relationships we were hoping to nurture. But when the project ultimately ended, we hadn’t accomplished all we had hoped.
Early in my tenure in another position, I was given a task that was quite a bit beyond my expertise and comfort. It required a pretty good understanding of our product’s back-end architecture, which I did not yet possess, and it required close collaboration with one of the database developers. This person was known for being very particular and conservative in their approach, making them sometimes hard to work with. But they were also central to the architecture of the product.
My manager knew full well that I did not yet have the skills necessary to complete this project on my own. But they understood that with proper coaching and by encouraging me to work closely with this database developer, I would rise to the occasion.
Rather than handling the interaction with the database developer themselves, my manager told me who to contact and some tips about communicating with them but then gave me full responsibility to build the relationship. They anticipated that I would make mistakes and learn a lot, but they also expected me to collaborate effectively and deliver the project on time.
Finding the right situation for the right person
These two stories illustrate how important it is to find the right assignment for the right employee at the right time.
Under the circumstances in the first story, I was not very likely to succeed at being the interdepartmental liaison. The combination of my skills, experience, and desires didn’t make me the right person for the job. Perhaps the project would have been more successful with someone else. Or perhaps if I were given such an assignment today I might thrive in it.
Throwing someone new on your team into the deep end with a difficult project is fraught—it won’t work for everyone, but for some it will work wonderfully. My manager in the second story believed I was capable of taking it on, and the circumstances were right for helping me succeed in it.
Learn your team members’ strengths and aspirations
The better you know your employees’ abilities and desires, the better you will be able to match them up to the right projects. Try to learn these kinds of things about your people:
- What are they good at now?
- What are they interested in learning?
- What are their strongest soft skills?
- How can I best use those strengths to improve the whole team?
- What are their weakest skills that, if strengthened, would have a high return on investment?
Once you know these things about your employees, try to match them to the projects and business needs you have. Give them opportunities to stretch and explore but also give them enough support so they don’t flounder or feel unsuccessful.
Make a table with four columns. Each row represents one of your team members and describes what they are currently working on, which of their strengths contribute to the success of the project, and which of their weaknesses would benefit most from development.
Here is a fictional example:
|Employee||Current project||Greatest strength||Weakness with the most potential|
|Margaret||Redesign deployment system||Detail-oriented, seeks out and solves edge cases where automation may fail||Can get caught up in over-optimization when not under time pressure|
|Sam||Research third-party integration||Has a knack for rapid prototyping, enjoys multi-faceted projects||Communication with other stakeholders is often sparse|
Once you have that table, discuss your findings in your next one-on-one with each person. Do they agree with your assessment? What things can be done to capitalize on their strengths and shore up their weaknesses in this particular project?
Get the timing right
As you look at upcoming projects on your roadmap, consider how you can develop each employee to help them grow and be successful in the future. Use this information to suggest professional development objectives, mentorship opportunities, and other activities that will guide them in that direction.
Someone may not be ready for a project now, but that doesn’t mean they will never be capable of it. You have the power to help them develop the critical skills they will need to be successful, and spending time understanding how to do it will open up new opportunities for both of you.
Make a table like you did in the last exercise, but this time list each team member’s name by every project you’re considering. List the strengths and weaknesses for each employee next to every project.
Here are our fictional employees Margaret and Sam with an upcoming project:
|Future project||Employee||Greatest strength||Weakness with the most potential|
|Reporting system rewrite||Margaret||Tries to understand customer needs thoroughly before implementation||Prefers generalization and abstraction even when it’s not strictly needed|
|Sam||Good software architect with understanding of distributed systems||Preference for greenfield development sometimes impairs handling of edge cases|
When reviewing this, notice which strengths of one employee line up with weaknesses of another. These could indicate mentorship opportunities, which will benefit both people as they work together on a shared problem. Also notice any weaknesses the employee may not realize. Pointing them out early can help them develop awareness and seek to strengthen those skills in advance of needing them for an upcoming project.