Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Don't know? Don't fret

We've all had that moment of panic. Our boss (or other superior figure) turns to us in a meeting and asks, "Can you take care of that?" And since you've heard that saying "no" is not a good thing to do at work, you either nod robotically or say "Sure!" and freak out later.  Oh, you haven't? Well, you should try it sometime.

As the second hire in my department (it was only my boss for years before I and another employee were hired on at the same time), a lot had to be done just to get our department in order. Procedures and style guides needed to be established, and other departments were eager to take advantage of this new communications team (rather than one communications person).  Requests ranged from making an interactive form (hellloooo Adobe Acrobat) to editing and formatting 40-page grants to writing from scratch a style guide and standards manual for the entire organization (we're mainly AP but with a bit of CMS thrown their Q&A section!).  My previous work experience? Magazine writing and editing. Oh, and traffic impact analysis (cars, not websites) and piano teaching.

Getting asked to do something you have no idea how to do can be a great opportunity for you to not only grow your own skill set but establish yourself as the go-to expert in your company for that need (we're trying to be indispensable, remember?).  Here are some tips for using what you don't know to increase what you do.
  • First off, get a handle on the scope of the project. This will narrow down your area of focus and help you deliver a result that fits the bill.
  • Strategize your method of attack. This includes deciding where you will start on the project, any background research needed, and points in the project where approvals or check ins may be needed.
  • If the task being asked of you is something your supervisor or a coworker has experience in, don't be afraid to ask them to double check your strategy to see if you're going in the right direction. This is an opportunity not only to make sure you aren't wasting time going in the wrong direction, but if you are on track, it shows that you have good intuition for the task at hand, even if you may not have experience. I'd recommend doing this sparingly--for example, the first time on a type of project or one that is extremely large and complicated compared to what you're used--making this too much of a habit can backfire and make you look insecure or forgetful.
  • Google is your friend. I wish I could post a sign outside my cubicle that says, "Have a question? Have you Google-d it, first? Proceed."  While this is most common among those folks that have less online research experience, I will admit I sometimes forget this advice myself and look like goof. 
  • Ask for clarification when needed.  Barking up the wrong tree can be a waste of valuable time.
  • Take look at your project afterward. What did you learn? A new software program or business method? Don't forget to add it to your resume.
  • Where else can you apply your new-found knowledge?  Put it to work for you by offering to do it again the next time (if you liked doing it) or training others how to do it (if you didn't).  If it's a novel approach to a project or you saw great results, consider submitting it as a presentation at a conference or an article to a trade publication.  In other words, share!

Where do you turn when you don't know something at work? How have you turned challenges into new skills or opportunities?


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