Departing Team Members: Please Leave Your Brain Behind

Last Updated Mar 23, 2010 9:34 AM EDT

Remote teams are particularly vulnerable to turnover. As a result, we need to always be thinking about what we'll do as managers if (and when) team members depart. Along with their computers, HR handbooks and corporate American Express cards, I sometimes wish I could get them to leave their brains behind when they go. While actual cranial transplants are discouraged, there are some things you should be thinking about while putting the team together to make sudden departures less painful.

For successful remote teams, it's all about harnessing what people know. The work they do can be replaced (running quality control on code is a replicatable task) much easier than their expertise or their social networks (who they can go to for answers in a hurry).

Forget the buzzwords like "knowledge capture" and "Information Management Systems" -- here are three tips for capturing what's in your team's heads before it goes out the door for good:

  1. Make sharing information a performance expectation. Behaviors become habits when they're expected, inspected and rewarded. When someone joins the team, let them know that sharing articles, contributing to discussions and loading their work to the shared drive or wiki is expected. Then hold them to it. Training in the use of tools like SharePoint and others should be part of orientation. Oh, and you'd best be modeling it yourself by sharing what you know.
  2. Identify important information and get proactive about capturing it. Believe it or not, teams do such good work on a regular basis that the really great stuff sometimes goes unappreciated. When you see a PowerPoint presentation that really captures key points, or someone identifies a problem and writes you an email suggesting a solution, encourage the creator to post it to your central repository of information -- right away. Asking them to do it just before they leave is not likely to work well, especially if they're not leaving on great terms.
  3. Encourage the team to share social networks. It's a cliche, but sometimes it's not what you know, but who you know. Encourage your team to share their social networks, either internally on Ning or Sametime, or externally on LinkedIn or Twitter. If nothing else, you might identify the dearly departed's replacement from within their own network.
Until someone finds a way to make departing employees leave their brains behind with their key cards, make knowledge sharing and capture part of the way your team works. It will reduce the stress and drama.

What tools and systems do you use to hang onto institutional knowledge? How's it working for you?