Monday, February 8, 2010

Taking Initiative: ur doing it rong

As I was telling a friend of mine, an architect at a different firm from mine, about my recent posts on initiative and getting hired in a bad economy, he recounted the following actual experience he had at his firm. With his permission, and with a few details changed, he has allowed me to share this as a cautionary tale to my readers.

My friend, whom I'll call Frank, has been managing the design and documentation process on a large project for the past year or so in his office. It's a big enough project that it's kept four to six people decently employed during a time that every other firm in his town is laying folks off. Since early December, there's been so much to do on the construction documents (CDs) on this project that he and the team have been working at least one if not both weekend days in addition to at least 9-hour days on each weekday. Everyone has been working this much...except for one intern, who we'll call Jake. Jake just does 8 to 9 hours a day and goes home, and he's rarely if ever in on the weekends. He finally did come in on the last weekend before the project was due and was in for about four hours. Whoo.

As Frank describes it, Jake is an employee that gets moved from project to project depending on which team needs help getting the work done. Wherever the demand for labor is, that's where Jake gets moved. The problem with this is that because of the semi-transient nature of his time use, Jake doesn't take ownership of anything he works on. For him it's, "I'm doing stuff for them" instead of, "We're working on X" or "I'm part of their team." Jake sees himself as temp help with no stake in the end product, instead of being an important part of a team with a lot at stake. To think that your role is ancillary is to sell everyone short--if the team didn't need the help and this task wasn't important, they wouldn't put you on the project, no matter how brief your role will be; and if your work wasn't at least decent and useful, the firm wouldn't still have you. This kind of attitude can often spill over into how you do your job: it doesn't really matter what I do, so I don't really have to learn that much/check my work/ask questions about how what I'm doing fits into the scheme of things, because someone else who "belongs" on the team is going to check/do/fix it later anyway. Sadly, Jake has fallen victim to this kind of thinking as well. Because of his lack of ownership in his work and his lack of ownership of the projects he works on, having Jake's help is almost like having no help at all.

One great way to take initiative is to care about what you do and how you do it, even when your role on a project seems secondary or even tertiary. When I have been put on projects to help out with one small thing, I have sometimes noticed something that was incorrect or had gone unnoticed and needed to be figured out/dealt with, which is a good thing. Every detail you check out or track down from front to back on a project, as it relates to what you're working on, is one more detail that won't surprise the team out in the field once construction starts. Sometimes, being that peripheral person is a great opportunity, because you're looking at the project with fresh eyes...which is how a contractor and the subcontractors are going to look at the drawings and specs when they receive them. When you see the project fresh and cannot make sense of the drawings or how to build a certain part of the building even after working on the project for a month, then someone in charge needs to know. When you call that to someone's attention, and if you can find a way to solve the problem, then that's taking initiative.

And remember yet again the Boss' Paradox: they don't always remember what you're doing, but s/he knows how well you do it. For Jake, Frank has been the boss for the past few months, and Frank knows how Jake does what he does--it's barely adequate. "If we have to do layoffs after these CDs go out, and anyone asks me about it," Frank told me over a drink on Friday, "I'm going to suggest Jake. He works like he really doesn't care and takes his job for granted, and there are way too many good, unemployed interns out there who would be glad to take his place and do a much better job."

No one likes to work 60-hour weeks for months on end, but sometimes we have to pull those hours for a few weeks and even a couple of months in a row in order to get the job done. But just as importantly (if not more importantly), we have to do our jobs well, consistently well. Especially in a bad economy, it's too easy to be sent away if you consistently don't care about process or product. Don't just take a job or a task--take the initiative to do the best you can on it.

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