Employees some say, are governed by what is told to them. They work in well laid out structures, with defined tasks and targets. The belief is; if a large framework were to be laid out, people would align themselves well to deliver what is expected. The belief is, people cannot deal with ambiguity; they need clear directions for work, and someone in the superordinate chain must define what is good for them and their work.
This we all will agree is an archaic philosophy. It was more successful when earliest forms of management were being laid out in assembly line organizations like the then automobile industry. It assumed the need for highly definitive and predictable output, where each product or service outcome was supposed to be same, with low scope for improvisation. It assumed people to be part of this long assembly line, with low skills and little or no imagination. I am almost immediately reminded of the music video from the much famed Pink Floyd Song, ‘Another Brick in the wall’; a sarcastic commentary on education.
This does not mean, such principles have no relevance left. They still are required in some specific pockets across industries. But overemphasis on them can be disastrous. Examples from some state run organizations are some such failures we often love to complain about. When employees and organizations expect such strait jacketed framework in our kind of industry, it calls for severe introspection.
That brings us to a higher end knowledge industry like ours; where the business environment and customer needs change ever so rapidly. The need for improvisation and innovation at every step is not ‘nice-to-have’; but absolute ‘must’ for survival. Skill sets needed here are not just significantly higher compared to other industries; but even within the IT and Telecom space, they are one of the most complex.
In such a context, it is clear that iron-clad framework of duties, role definitions and job expectations are bound to fail. Successful people in this environment must know how to deal with significant levels of ambiguity; and should focus on using their imagination and know-how to constantly improvise and challenge existing paradigms and ways of doing work. The real goal is to constantly push the boundaries of what was achieved last time. Not just in output, but the way people at individual level approach the outcomes they are to deliver from their individual desks.
Obviously, these can’t be achieved by employees in case they just look up to that one manager or his boss to define those expectations. In knowledge industries dealing with expertise in niche areas, it is entirely possible, and even expected that the subordinate may carry better domain expertise than their superior when it comes to specifics. The second premise which I have personally advocated to individuals for long, revolves around the belief that “No one knows our job and its intricacies better than us”.
One rather funny aspect we seem to forget – “These can’t be expected to be ever so aligned with that annual review cycle that a company creates at the beginning of its business year”. For sure, the market is not waiting for us to throw up changing and challenging expectations only when our performance cycle begins. It can knock our doors and crash our roofs almost anytime, mostly without too much warning if we are not looking for it on our own.
So what is the way out ? How should we deal with it at our individual level as an employee ? The trick is to first change the belief, that someone else, especially your manager is the architect of your destiny. Manager is the guide, mentor and facilitator; but surely not the only source; and surely not the primary source of what and how expectations have to emerge for us in our kind of work. Once this onus shifts back to us, where it originally should have belonged in the first place; we as individuals start taking control of our work expectations, its outcomes; and most importantly our development and growth. We start bringing in strong influence on how this destiny is shaped and not just wait for things to get handed down to us. From here on, it is matter of following some basic steps for the course of our year. I recommend the following:
1. First know what you are trying to capture. It is not about things to do, but outcomes to be achieved.
2. Begin by studying the landscape of your job and what daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual expectations emerge in your area.
3. Understand why your role exists and what value it brings to the overall scheme of things.
4. Be in constant touch with your colleagues, juniors and superiors; and gather as much information as possible from them on the past challenges, expected changes and customer needs that need to be delivered by the team. Customers include any internal and external stakeholders to whom the team and your role is answerable to. Understand the volume of work that will build in your space. Gather business and project related knowledge to the extent possible.
5. Be aware that not all from the above will be available, and for sure not available at one go. It will have elements of ambiguity. Don’t wait for the jigsaw to be completed before you move on. Best of people have to learn to work with limited information.
6. To the above, add your understanding of how industry is evolving in your domain. How people who do similar work within and outside the company work and achieve things. What are they responsible for. Also, look at your achievements, strengths and weaknesses and give this landscape your personal flavour when it comes to the net list of elements which have to be achieved during the course of the year. Last year’s appraisal gives a good basis to begin understanding the expectations. If your role has changed due to restructuring or promotion; speak to people who have handled such roles earlier.
7. With the above, start listing out the outcomes and inputs. Some of your work can be measured through outcomes and some through the inputs/efforts you put in. Don’t define activities down to daily level tasks, but keep it slightly macro.
8. Now that you have the overall list, start looking at achievements from last year; and think how they need to be stretched upon, to create excellence. Stretch to realistic levels, so that it doesn’t not become impossible or impractical. But don’t build lower expectations as well. People who only stick to the routine and always play safe, easily get superseded by others. If you are in the same role for more than one year, it is essential to have elements far ahead of the routine. Similar expectations from yourself for more than two years, means you are not growing in your competencies adequately enough; and may soon start slipping.
9. Now choose a set of focus areas which reflect a balanced mix of your own aspirations and benchmarks, stakeholder expectations (internal or external), superior’s past inputs and core expectations that form major elements of the role that you handle. Add at least one improvement initiative that will benefit your team, unit or company depending on your capabilities and role. Additionally, add few elements for yourself in the functional and general/behavioural areas that you intend to acquire competencies on.
10. The above should form around 7-8 elements; and reflect at one glance where you need to focus upon during the course of the year. These are the areas where you expect to invest disproportionate time. Rest of the larger list of elements will form part of your daily activities, but may not find their way into your year end appraisal. Remember, both have to be achieved by you.
11. With the above, approach your manager with the internal plan(especially the focus areas) you have prepared. For every elemen,t at least in your mind, be sure of the rationale involved.
12. Unless your manager rejects this; or suggests otherwise, you should continue to work in this direction. Many times we wait for things to happen, and lose time and focus. Don’t allow that. Do rigorous follow ups while you continue with your baseline plan. It is your career and performance year at stake. It is strange how things start falling in place for those who get out of their chairs and push things around with ownership and collaboration. People start taking notice, and know you mean business.
13. Though unlikely, some managers may come back and change the whole thing you have prepared. Don’t get disheartened. At least you learnt a lot about how to define your expectations. In almost 100% cases, your manager will understand the and appreciate your efforts and see the ownership you have shown. In case your manager has shared a set of expectations, get into a healthy dialogue to suggest changes in case your self-created plan adds value. Blindly working on only handed down list of expectations is a definite no-no for your long term development.
14. Finally, as discussed in the initial part of this article, no expectations can be rigid and constant. Please keep a close watch on how things are evolving. Proactively reach out to your manager to redefine some of the expectations which emerge during the course of the year.
15. Realize and Remember, dealing with ambiguity is critical. It is you who has to take ownership and help get clarity.
16. The onus is not on the manager, but you as an individual. Your, work, your career and your development is your baby first. Saying “ I don’t know what is expected of me” or” My role is not clear” reflects more on us than others. If it is so, reach out and correct this imbalance.
Author: Sandyp Bhattacharya