Guide to project onboarding (checklist and common problems)

project onboarding guide

Years ago, I was handed a brand-new project to manage and needed to get my team up-to-speed—with a tight two-month deadline to launch and no room for errors. In order to onboard my team, I linked everyone to the project brief, added them to the project task board, and held a hasty all-hands meeting imparting the urgency of the deadline and asking everyone to let me know if they had questions after they read through the project docs.

I’m sure you can predict what was next. Due to a poor onboarding process, the kickoff was riddled with delays due to misunderstandings of the goals and milestones of the project, many teammates felt they were working in the dark on their tasks (missing major specs because of this), and everyone felt stressed because of the general lack of communication in my so-called onboarding process at the time. All because the onboarding process had failed from the beginning.

So let’s ask the basic questions: what is project onboarding? How can project managers get it right? 

Below, I’ve deciphered what project onboarding is, common problems with project onboarding (and how to correct them), and a list of tips meant to be used as a project onboarding checklist to get started.

What is project onboarding?

Project onboarding is the process of gathering the right people and the right resources to make sure a new project is completed on time, on budget, and within scope. 

It’s a time to define why the project is important, who the stakeholders are, and which people on the team are responsible for what tasks. The project manager establishes due dates, deliverables, and requirements. 

Project managers often introduce new processes and tools during the onboarding period. For example, an IT contractor might need to learn about their client’s legacy system before committing to a third-party software implementation. 

Further, teams often expand and contract with new projects depending on the resources needed to get it done. 

All project management methodologies, from critical chain to Scrum, require project managers to introduce their team to the project in some way. 

What are the most common project onboarding problems?

A demonstration of project onboarding with context; a screenshot from Resource Guru

Project managers often don’t have a robust tool like Resource Guru that provides insight into their resources’ workloads.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just hand team members a project, communicate all the project’s requirements and expectations through a quick email, and then kick back and watch it get done perfectly?

If you’re smirking like I am right now, it’s probably because you’ve tried this once (maybe more than once) before and discovered that this system of project onboarding doesn’t work. 

If you’re lucky enough to have never tried to brush off project onboarding, here are a handful of warnings of what could happen if you do. 

1. Unclear requirements

Want to make sure that a new website uses lazy loading for its images or that your LEED-certified building lays down eco-friendly flooring to complete its remodel? What might seem obvious to a PM might not be so clear to project team members.

2. Poor stakeholder management

Project onboarding isn’t just for team members. If you don’t define expectations for how often stakeholders should expect updates or provide feedback, your stakeholder communication can quickly disintegrate over the course of the project.

3. Under-equipped teams

Onboarding is a time to make sure that everyone is on the same page with how a project is going to move forward. If your team isn’t properly introduced to the procedures and equipment that will get used over the course of the project, the team will be scrambling to orient themselves while the project’s clock ticks forward. 

4. Unrealistic budget expectations

While teams learn about the project’s expectations while clocking in on the project instead of during a dedicated onboarding time, everything slows down, pushing the project back and straining the budget (especially if the requirements also aren’t clear). 

5. Unmet process expectations 

If you’re dealing with third-party stakeholders (like a client or regulating body), they may have a certain way of communicating progress and feedback that needs to be shared with the team. Without the initial conversation about process expectations (and the opportunity for your team to clarify with questions), something as important as regulation requirements could go unspoken, to the project’s detriment. 

6. Project priority miscommunication

Wouldn’t it be great if teams could work on one project at a time? While some teams have that luxury, others aren’t as fortunate. When time becomes a scarce resource, it’s essential that teams are unified on which projects to which they should give preference. The project onboarding process should contextualize how a particular project fits into the rest of the team’s work.


Project onboarding checklist: 5 tips for project managers

Getting a team up-to-speed on projects thoroughly doesn’t have to take a large amount of time, but it does have to be done right. Careful planning, an onboarding checklist, and communication can make all of the difference in onboarding a project team. I’ve learned through trial and error how to navigate my team through typical barriers in the onboarding process—and here’s what works.

1. Provide access to as much context as possible from the start.

Include context as much as you can while project planning

When onboarding a team, context is key. Providing context on a project allows your team to get into their parts of the project quickly and smoothly—also giving them a chance to raise questions or red flags earlier on in a project. Things that help give context to a project are:

  • Onboarding documents: Project briefs, scopes, and notes
  • Information about project methodology and process
  • URLs for all project-related websites and examples
  • An overview of key project stakeholders (their positions, roles, and project thoughts)
  • Explanation of the review process on the client-side
  • A brief summary of the user/project audience
  • The history surrounding the stakeholders’ company and project inception
  • Clarity on processes and regulations unique to the project 

Share these items in an easy-to-reference place (such as an internal wiki, project folder on a shared drive, or in your document management system), and make sure everyone knows where to find this information throughout the project. Easy access to project context—even if it’s just sharing relevant links in the details sections of a booking—can help solve problems more quickly during onboarding and the entire project.

2. Hold onboarding team sessions across multiple channels of communication.

In-person, real-time communication is a great thing, and so incredibly important to project onboarding. Questions can be asked and answered on the fly, everyone can collaborate in their views of the project, and momentum is built. I like to hold multiple, short meetings to demo the project specs, discuss the project goals and history, and ask for thoughts and questions over the span of a day or two so that everyone has time to digest information as we onboard. This technique is really useful in improving the project onboarding process.

Some people think more comfortably in written form, over time, or after reviewing information multiple times. Additionally, some team members might not feel fully comfortable sharing their initial questions or thoughts in a group setting for a variety of reasons. It’s critical to the success of your project to check in with team members one-on-one over chat or email during the project onboarding timeframe. A quick note like “What do you think about the project scope?” or “Would you like other topics to be covered in our next meeting?” can give individuals on your team an opening to share more with you if needed.

3. Give out homework.

As the onboarding project manager assign everyone a part of the project to get familiar with for project onboarding meetings—the project scope, overall project goals, stakeholder information, or their individual parts in the project (design brief, development specs, etc). Ask everyone to come prepared with 2-3 questions, and share these questions with each other in the meeting. Asking and answering project-related questions up front in a group setting can bring out questions that might not be caught or asked otherwise, and gets everyone to think creatively about the project while coming up with these questions.

Giving out this “homework” to review prior to an onboarding meeting creates immediate investment in the project. Thinking critically and productively about the project from the start helps bring everyone on board prior to the actual project kickoff, making the project onboarding period more efficient.

4. Be transparent about your expectations and plans for the project when onboarding.

Along with the project goals and plan, make sure to actually communicate your expectations to your team for project communication, timelines, meetings, and issues. Explain the check-in schedule, details about how your existing project process applies to the new project (or how new processes will be used), key client deadlines and your goals for those reviews, and how/when to privately get in touch with you regarding the project.

Frame your expectations as a project manager clearly and make sure to state your own intentions for the project as well—for example, if you know the client is especially concerned about hitting their deadline because their last project went months over with another firm, mention that to the team. Let them in on the trust you’re building with your stakeholders and the goals you want to hit on the project itself so that everyone is invested in the same end result.

5. Make sure team members are properly introduced to new systems and tools.

Some stakeholders have specific processes that will be new to your team. 

For example, government contracts often require strict documentation in the event of an audit. Those documentation processes extend out to contractors, right down to individual contributions. When that documentation isn’t filed correctly, it’s often the project manager who has to deal with the ramifications, and the project gets delayed. 

Similarly, new projects often come with new software programs or tools. Just like it’s the project manager’s responsibility to break down new processes, it’s also their responsibility to ensure that their team is correctly onboarded to new or changing software. Learning a new tool takes time, and you don’t want that time spent learning billed against a project that isn’t progressing. 

Why should you consider software for project onboarding?

Getting teams onboarded onto a project can be tricky if it’s not planned right. Identifying the most critical steps in onboarding project after project has helped me to refine my approach and realize what gets my teams familiar with a project as quickly and easily as possible. With this proper planning, it’s easy to avoid onboarding process issues and get our project teams together more easily than ever.

The right project onboarding software can help make this process much easier. Use a tool like Resource Guru to evaluate your team’s availability to take on new projects, schedule them correctly, and keep everyone on the same page. 

Itching to get your team ready for your next project? Your first 30 days with Resource Guru is free of charge.