Hopping onto a moving train: joining teams mid-project as a freelancer to get to the finish lineFeatured

As a creative freelancer, I often join projects when they're in the middle or nearing the finish line toward a big deliverable. The nature of freelancing is that we are often called into projects in these moments of a time crunch or when things didn’t go as originally planned.

When joining existing teams or even collaborating with a new pair of clients, I like to clarify a few main points from the beginning: while I do have a large toolbox of technical and practical skills, I am also valuable for my ideas and non-tangible contributions. I like to say: I am not hired to be simply “an extra pair of hands”, but as a pair of hands attached to a brain and body. So all of this should be used and made the most of in our time together.

Here’s some practical advice for creatives contributing to projects on an as-needed basis or joining teams mid-project:

1) understand your context and team dynamic,

2) determine your main ally, and

3) be very clear on timelines, deliverables, and realistic expectations.

Context + dynamic

Among the biggest challenges of joining a project team that has already been working together is understanding not only the stage of the project but also the team dynamic—who you're working with, how that team is structured, and what the roles are on the team.

During the first meetings on a new project, I am not shy to ask who's going to be working on the project, what their roles are and their level of engagement. In the moments following this conversation (where I take careful notes), I make sure to pay attention to how this plays out in practice. It can be extremely informative to read “in between the lines” to understand team dynamics – who participates in what types of meetings, how team members communicate with each other, who calls the final shots, etc.

Once you understand this context, it is important to understand how you fit into this ecosystem. Feeling integrated in a preexisting team is a great challenge, but it can also be rewarding and contribute to the quality of the outcome. Fully immersing yourself in the universe of a project topic helps deliver the work with integrity.

Allies and contributions

Be a fly on the wall (but only in the beginning). A new person who joins an existing team already setting their own rules and norms isn’t always welcomed with open arms. Getting a good understanding of the context and group dynamic is an important step in configuring how you will want to engage and contribute to this group.

As freelancers, especially with new clients and teams, we often want to show our value right away. We have to balance making contributions while also respecting the team and the suggestions and decisions that may have already been worked through before our arrival. If you’re not sure whether an idea or concept has previously been tested, find a good time to ask the team or ask to see the folders of discarded ideas. This might also be insightful for what you can contribute with fresh eyes.

Pick a main ally. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the person who was your original point of contact or the person who hired you for the job. Internally identify someone on the project team with whom you connect and feel that will be a strong point of contact throughout the work. This could be a partner with a similar role as you, a project manager, or someone who has a bit more experience on the topic at hand, or anyone who can serve as a guide or mentor along the project. This is who to go to for quick decisions and clarifications.

Timelines and expectations

As a freelancer, understanding the team’s flow, rhythm and cadence is especially important. Different teams and clients have various ways of working, and the pace at which items are developed, worked through, and presented varies greatly. Pay close attention to this cadence of work and understand how your own working style can be adapted to match the expectations of this new team.

This might also be a place to make observations or suggestions. For example, if you perceive that a team spends too much time ideating and not enough on prototyping or testing, then you might suggest this adjustment. Prioritization is key for any project’s success, and as an incoming addition to an existing team, it can often be helpful to run this analysis and see some opportunities for prioritization and streamlining the workflow.

Understanding the scope of work at hand, the time constraints, and the available resources is key to the best possible outcome. Be very clear on what you think is reasonable and realistic to deliver with the highest quality of work. After all, it would be great for this to be the start of a long-term partnership!

As a creative freelancer, this advice is so helpful!
Aw, glad to hear this!