on February 2nd, 2015

Courtesy Mityunjay Kumar

Taking initiative is about picking up organizational challenges to solve without being asked and delivering results. Taking initiative is a well-known way to achieve stardom at workplace. A FastCompany article has this to say from the book How to Be a Star at Work: 9 Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed:

For stars, initiative generally has four elements: It means doing something above and beyond your job description. It means helping other people. Usually it involves some element of risk-taking. And when you’re really taking initiative, it involves seeing an activity through to completion.

Here are a couple of other rules about initiative: First, before you take on anything new, make sure that you’re doing your assigned job well. Second, remember that social initiatives don’t count for much. Organizing the company picnic or a blood drive won’t get you the kind of recognition you want. They’re fine things to do – but do them because they bring you satisfaction. Third, the kind of initiatives that matter to your career are those that relate to the company’s critical path. Find out what promotes the company’s core mission, and tie your initiatives to it.

However, taking initiative is hard:

  • Since it is taking something beyond your regular work, it requires extra time investment which few people seem to have in today’s busy organizations.
  • It requires risk taking and results may not always be there, so an organization too focused on fixing problems and eradicating failure may actually penalize initiative-takers in many cases.

Taking initiative to solve specific problems is still one of the best ways of being effective. Here is an example: if your project has too many requirement changes coming in every week, one way to solve this problem might be to stay in close contact with the product manager(s) and change as quickly as requirements come. But effective people probe it further and may realize that things are changing because product manager has been meeting with customers without understanding our own capabilities and hence just passes on the requirements without understanding or validating. They then go one step further and help to the product manager by attending the customer meetings, explaining the product and current plan of record and how it solves all of their problems, provides 1-1 training to product manager and creating a set of slides for the product manager to understand and use for next time.

To illustrate some of the points below, I will use an example: A is a developer in a software company and B is the project manager of the team of 10 engineers in which A is a developer. According to B, A never meets his deadline even after repeated reminders, and B thinks maybe A is just lazy, or slow who will jeopardize this project. He is thinking of asking the project leader (C) to intervene. This is a very critical project for the company and many other projects depend on the success of this project and it must be delivered in time and with quality.

Here are some of the things effective people do when they taking initiatives:

  • Right problems to solve: The problem on surface is seldom the problem that requires solving. Effective people spend time in understanding the underlying cause of the problems they see (see ‘5 Whys‘ and ‘Problem Solving‘) and then resolve them. They also keep in mind their basic goals for solving a given problem and are willing to think holistically all the time. In our example, for B to be effective, he needs to spend time with A to understand real reason of why A has problems meeting his deadline. In this case, he does so, and finds out the root cause: the module A is working on requires very detailed design aligned with other modules’ designs. Escalating to project leader may only end up frustrating A (who is trying to do his best under the circumstances), addressing the root cause solves the problem for A (and potentially for other developers) and also makes him respect B much more (which helps B’s work easier going forward J).
  • Clear goals and measures of success: Once they pick a problem to solve, effective people define the goals and measure of success very clearly. This helps in scoping the problem and effort requirements. Without clear definitions, most initiatives will end up sucking lots of time with no results to show, causing failures. In the above example, B can define his goal as ‘work with project leader and a few senior developers to create detailed design for the whole project that can be understood and implemented by the existing team’). The measure of success could be ‘A doesn’t miss deadlines because of lack of clarity. The team understands the inter-dependencies of modules clearly and is able to plan their work accordingly’. Defined this way, B can now understand how much effort is required from him to achieve the goals and measure the results, as well as the people who need to be involved to produce this result. He is now in a better position to decide whether to take the initiative to solve this problem or not (he can still go back to the solution ‘escalate to the leader’).
  • Make sure you can produce results – Most initiatives take additional time and effort from involved persons. If this is not available or can’t be created, even important initiatives can fail. So effective people make sure that people who need to contribute have enough time and resources to do so (by talking to their managers, by inspiring them to work extra hours, by re-prioritizing regularly scheduled work, etc). Also, effective people make sure there are no known obstacles on the way which can’t be controlled and which can derail the initiative, this typically come from other stakeholders. For example, even when everyone wants to solve this problem, if the overall manager doesn’t want anyone to spend time on anything other than coding, it is hard for the team to spend time in creating the designs. In this case, without resolving manager’s problems, starting on the initiative to produce designs is not a good idea.
  • Build and maintain credibility – Initiatives depend on others spending time on work that isn’t directly assigned to them, and sometimes may not even benefit them directly. So the people who take initiatives rely a lot on their own credibility and leadership to get others to work on their initiatives. Building and maintaining credibility is absolute must for sustained initiative-taking. Effective people do so very deliberately, by doing these things:
    • Being Transparent – Effective people are transparent about why they pick initiatives, and are always willing (and eager) to explain the benefits of an initiative. Their actions support their reasoning, and helps people see that the intention is to really solve a problem and not to take undue advantage of others.
    • Give Credit, take blame – Effective people understand that since people go out of their regular work schedule to work on initiatives most of the time, they need positive reinforcement all the time. One of the best ways to do this is to give credit when it is due, rather than taking all the limelight when initiative succeeds. Also, it means taking the blame if things go wrong rather than letting others bear the brunt of someone’s ire. This generates the respect and good faith that is needed for people to sign up for initiatives with effective people.
    • Delivering Results – Best way of building credibility is to make initiatives successful so that others feel good about the efforts they put in. Effective people make sure that the percentage of initiatives (they pick up) that succeed is very high. This is done by picking the right ones, and then creating right environment and team to make it successful.

Notice that ‘taking initiatives’ conjures up an image of big organization initiatives like ‘improve cross-group collaboration by using social media’, involving many people and groups and with very ambitious (and sometimes fuzzy) goals. However, in the context of effectiveness, taking initiative is all about picking right problems to solve which has very specific outcomes. These may be big changes (‘change the requirement tracking tool’) or very small (‘create a template to capture requirement changes’), but they solve well-defined problems. Also, sometimes this will involve solving problems which lack glamour and mass appeal (and so doesn’t get noticed by those who can make you star!). Consistently being effective by taking initiatives does make you a star employee in the long run (and such a stardom is more stable), but it may take a long time.

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