how to do a great job on a stretch assignment

What do you do when you’re assigned a project that feels like a real stretch and where you don’t have experience?

If you’ve been handed a new responsibility and are nervous about your ability to deliver, here are four steps to help you tackle it without a crisis of confidence or a major disaster.

1. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Just because you’re the one leading the project doesn’t meant that you have to go it alone. Top performers are often top performers because they’re not afraid to ask for help and advice. Reach out to people who have done similar work before (or who have seen it done well) and ask for advice. What do they wish they knew the first time they were in your shoes? What insight and guidance can they offer? What are the pitfalls you should watch out for? Most people are delighted to be asked for advice. (Remember, you’re not asking them to do the work for you; you’re asking them to share their insights, which is generally flattering.)

2. Check in with your manager more frequently than usual. Don’t assume that you’re on your own until the work is completed. Check in with your manager regularly to make sure that you’re on track and to get the benefit of her input while there’s still time to course correct if needed. You don’t want to overly lean on her, of course, but it’s perfectly reasonable to do things like run your initial plan by her, check in about particular challenges that crop up, and report back periodically on what results you’re starting to get. Ideally your manager would check in on her own, but you don’t need to wait for that to happen, and if she’s busy, it might not happen if you sit back and wait. (If you feel weird about doing this, try saying at the outset, “Since this is new for me, is it okay if I check in with you at key points during the work?”)

3. Think about what could go wrong, and put a plan in place to guard against those possibilities. Having a vague sense of worry and trepidation won’t serve you well at all. But figuring out specifically what could go wrong can serve you very well indeed, because it allows you to come up with a plan to either prevent those things from happening in the first place or to handle them if they do. So spend some time thinking through what could stand in the way of your project’s success, and then figure out what to do about those possibilities. And – in keeping with steps #1 and #2 – don’t be afraid to enlist your manager or others with expertise in helping you plan for those contingencies.

4. Remember that pushing past your comfort zone is how you learn new skills. If you never took on anything new or anything that made you a little uncomfortable, your skills would stagnate and you’d never grow professionally. Plus, your manager probably trusted you with this work for a reason and sees in you the skill and ability to get it done. It might not go absolutely perfectly, but that’s a normal part of learning something new. But you only have to do something once for it not to be brand new to you anymore, and that’s how you learn.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 15 comments… read them below }

  1. Sascha

    Thanks for the great article! I’m in the midst of this right now. Something I wish I had done is planned it out a little better – particularly in reading up on documentation for what I’m doing (a systems integration project). It’s going fairly well, but I’m spending more time reading documentation during the project instead of before.

  2. The Maple Teacup

    A most excellent article. I’m about to start a small project outside my regular job duties. If I do well on it (and I surely will now!) I hope to get more of these assignments.

  3. Elkay

    Unfortunately my manager has a habit of pushing stuff like this out because she doesn’t know how to deal with it so regular check ins are no use :( It’s all a case of “Do it now” with no guidance as to what “it” is.

    1. Ann O'Nemity

      I’ve run into similar issues where stretch assignments are given in small companies because no existing employee has that particular skill set. Therefore, there’s no one to ask for advice, your manager can’t offer any guidance in the check-ins, and you don’t know what could go wrong or how to plan for contingencies. The expectations and metrics can also be wildly off-base – again, it’s because no one has the expertise to know what realistic yardsticks look like. Doing research on your own can help, but you often end up flying by the seat of your pants.

    2. James M

      That sounds just as bad as “It’s broken. Fix it. High priority.” and little or no additional information. Success requires stretching beyond human limits (mind-reading, clairvoyance, time travel, etc…).

  4. Sue

    Alison, thank you for this advice! I like it when you say that top performers are that way because they’re not afraid to ask for help or advice.

  5. Pomme de terre

    I liked this article! I admit I recently reacted badly when given a stretch assignment recently. (In fairness, the assignment was eventually canceled because some higher-ups realized it wasn’t realistic.) But ugh, I started a new job last year and the job has morphed SO much over the past six months that everything feels like a stretch assignment. I guess I’m learning stuff, but I just feel so exhausted and depleted.

    1. Not So NewReader

      Exhausted and depleted- oh my this is so true. Make sure you are getting rest. Don’t wait for weekends to get caught up. If Wednesday is the middle day of the week call that your “the heck with everything day” and go to bed early.
      Another thing that helps with exhaustion is to write down where you will start tomorrow OR pick a few goals for tomorrow- write it down before you leave work at night. I try to leave myself something to start with in the morning- it’s very easy to walk in the next day and your train of thought is totally gone.

      1. Kali

        These are awesome suggestions, even when you’re not working on a stretch assignment. I think Wednesday is the perfect day to be my new “the heck with everything day.”

  6. Suz

    Great advice. I have a friend currently in a stretch position, but she does not feel like her manager will listen to her concerns or answer clarifying/detailed questions so she doesn’t ask. Very frustrating

  7. Jamie

    I missed this post – it’s all great advice. I built my entire career on stretch assignments. I know a lot of people want to negotiate more money/title/promotion before they take on more work/headaches/responsibility but I always took the opposite approach. I found it was a lot easier for me to prove myself in tougher positions first and the other stuff follows.

  8. Jane

    I just finished a 2.5 month stretch assignment and now I would like to send a follow up to the team that I worked with to get their feedback in these key areas:
    1. Leadership
    2. Communication
    3. Engagement
    I would like to come up with 1-2 questions for each area and create an anonymous survey.
    Any suggestions on the types of questions in order to gain constructive feedback?
    Thanks.

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