Team Member Selection Criteria: Look For Stars And Sponges

Paul Dandurand

When you look for team member selection criteria, you probably will not think of “stars and sponges” as criteria. You should!

One criterion should be “stars,” who have great experience and produce project deliverables. Another criteria should be “sponges,” or junior team members who love to learn and grow. I’ll explain the differences and why you need both, especially if you don’t have the budget to hire new employees or contractors and need to focus on building your teams’ capabilities.

In my last blog, 10 resource planning steps for humans, step five introduced the importance of finding both stars and sponges for project teams. This article expands that step.

Who are stars?

You may think this is really easy to answer. You may say they are the super performers. Traditionally, a “star” team member is the one with the most productivity. This could be measured by comparing the payroll or contracting cost of the person with their output deliverables or supporting materials produced on projects.

You may have heard of the “STAR Method” used as a hiring technique. In one article, the STAR method was explained for project managers. During an interview, the candidate is asked four questions related to a past experience: what was the Situation, what Tasks were involved, what Action did you take, and what was the Result. The answers help the interviewer understand how the candidate can take action in a project situation and turn it into positive results.

That’s not bad, but I feel there are other, equally important (or in some cases, even more important) characteristics in a star performer. These are my favorite star project-team member selection criteria:

  • Critical thinker and thrives on solving problems
  • Continues to learn and expand expertise
  • Quick to flex with changing situations without stress
  • Able to turn intuition from experience into new ideas
  • Willing to share knowledge and experience with other team members
  • Actively seeks out those who are stumbling and helps them learn and solve

The last two are probably the most important for team growth and they are the power of true human engagement on projects.

Who are sponges?

No, it’s not someone who lives off someone else’s generosity. And, no, it’s not SpongeBob.

A “sponge” is someone who has the desire to learn from others and show they can grow with small wins from newly acquired knowledge. Most of the sponges you find in your company are the junior people starting off with new project experiences. They haven’t yet mastered them, but have enough fortitude to be considered as a team member in a challenging position. Here are some criteria for sponge project-team members:

  • Desire to learn and tendency to be inquisitive
  • Not timid with asking for help and easily accepts help from others
  • Able to deal with constant change
  • Good at researching and looking for existing solutions or similar scenarios
  • Willing to share with other sponges
  • Learning how to be a critical thinker and problem-solver

Dave Balter, a contributor to the Forbes Leadership Forum, has a great post titled “To be a great leader, don’t be a genius; be a sponge and a stone.” He points out these additional criteria:

  • Learns from mentors, advisors, and peers
  • Studies heroes
  • Reads voraciously

Dave goes on to explain the “stone” side, which includes being fearless, believing the impossible is possible, and engaging in multiple projects. Check it out. It’s a good read.

Note that these sponge attributes should also be star attributes. A star who is not also a sponge will quickly become outdated and left behind.

Why sponges instead of only stars

Going back to my assumption, I assume your budget is limited and you’re are trying to make it all work with the team of people you already have. You most likely have stars, especially those with the ability to take action in a project situation and turn it into positive results.

Let’s say you’re doing some resource planning and need some great team members for upcoming projects. Part of your process is to align skilled people with the project roles.

Here’s the problem with looking only for stars as your criteria:

Stars are most likely already booked and not available for your project. That’s because they are always in high demand.

You can try to beg or steal, but this situation will always exist for some project manager or resource planner. What can you do? You need great people to produce awesome results.

The answer is to find your sponges and get them up to speed.

I bet your company has a number of unknown sponges. Sponges are often overlooked because of they lack strong experience. Because of this, they are probably not in high demand and may be available. But how can you succeed with a sponge without expertise and knowledge, especially for critical projects? The answer is:

  1. Engage stars to document their knowledge, and
  2. Pair up sponges with stars

These two actions will be critical for long-term team growth, which translates into happier people making better project results.

Engage stars to document and share knowledge

The main point here is to make it easy for a sponge to get access to descriptions for executing a task they have not experienced yet. First of all, the shared knowledge from stars will eliminate the need for the sponge to guess how to do the work right the first time. Second, this will quickly help a sponge learn how to become a future star. And third, you soon will have more stars for future people-resource planning.

Let’s assume you have one star (or more) as a team member on a current live project. Let’s also assume you have a good visual project- and process-management application that’s made for sharing best-practice knowledge, or what I call “recipes,” for important project tasks.

If you don’t have a recipe-friendly project management tool, and you’re not ready to search for one, then just set up a spreadsheet with columns and add a “description” column to the right of your task list to document the how-to steps. I recommend web-based sheets, such as Google Sheets or an Excel sheet in Dropbox or Office 365 OneDrive.

Start with finding ways to get stars’ knowledge out of their heads and into a task description ready to be used for future projects. Encourage stars to document their important tasks with detailed how-to descriptions so it’s easy for a new sponge to soak up the knowledge and be successful.

For example, this image shows an important task related to defining project scope. The star who experienced past challenges with scope creep has documented her how-to tips, or her “secret sauce,” on how to reduce future risks. This example is from the free version of Pie; although it’s not as effective as a dedicated “recipes” tool, your stars can at least document their knowledge in something like a Google or Excel spreadsheet for sharing.

Pair up sponges with stars

Identify some of your live project’s critical tasks that are assigned to a star. Pick out one or two sponge team members on this project and see if they have time available to participate on those important tasks. The idea is to pair up the sponges with the star so they can learn the secret sauce on how to get the tasks properly executed.

Consider sponges who are not on this project and have some availability. For example, they could be in between projects (“on the bench”) or maybe working part-time on other projects and have breathing room to participate with a star.

The least time-consuming pair-up approach would be to encourage the star and sponge to spend 15 minutes or so reviewing how a critical task is handled. This is especially powerful if the star has documented how-to steps for the sponge’s future reference. When the sponge faces this task alone in the future, he or she could not only read the task’s secret sauce description but also connect the learning conversation with a star.

Build a star and sponge culture

For a sponge to truly be a sponge in your environment, you need to build a culture that identifies and supports sponges and engages stars to share. As sponges learn from stars, they will quickly be able to take action in a project situation and turn it into positive results.

The stars who are humble, rather than the smartest people in the room, are your important ingredients for building this culture. This is where recognizing and celebrating people who share their knowledge to benefit everyone is important. I don’t have answers today on the best approach to get this going. However, I bet you would get a plateful of ideas for action if you ask your stars how they can share their knowledge with sponges and what lessons the stars learned that should be documented for future projects.

Finally, build in steps at the beginning of your project recipe initiating or planning phase that engages team behavior best practices, such as:

  1. This is how you ask for help.
  2. This is how to give help to others.
  3. This is how to improve this project’s recipe for future like-projects.

May you have plenty of stars and sponges with better project team member selection criteria.

For more on this topic, please read the People Resource Planning series.

This article originally appeared on the Pie blog and is republished by permission.


Paul Dandurand

About Paul Dandurand

Paul Dandurand is the founder and CEO of PieMatrix, a visual project management application company. Paul has a background in starting and growing companies. Prior to PieMatrix, he was co-founder of FocusFrame, where he wore multiple hats, including those of co-president and director. He helped position FocusFrame as the market leader with process methodology differentiation. FocusFrame was sold to Hexaware in 2006. Previously, he was a management consulting manager at Ernst & Young (now Capgemini) in San Francisco and Siebel Systems in Amsterdam. Paul enjoys photography, skiing, and watching independent films. He earned a B.A. degree in Economics from the University of California at Berkeley.