A number of years ago I worked for a small consulting firm. We were offered a somewhat risky contract that would be very difficult and would require learning an entirely new industry – one with a relatively high failure rate for projects. The customer trusted us, and it sounded really exciting, so we took the contract. We were ultimately successful, and it was a big win for the company, and allowed our team to develop some very lucrative follow-on work. I learned a lot from that project, but the biggest lesson of all is that the biggest wins come from taking the smartest risks. This is true for individual roles as well – does anyone who gets a promotion really know what the job entails until it happens? Being willing to take on a role outside your comfort zone is the first and most important step to being able to do the job.
You may have heard the phrase “fake it till you make it.” Often this is a good strategy, but to really succeed you must take it little further. You must be willing to take calculated risks in order to grow, and you must develop a strong skill set that will support your ability to take on the risk. If you continue to do the same things you always do, you will stagnate. You must continue to learn and grow. But taking training courses and keeping up with the professional journals isn’t nearly enough. If you wait until you are an expert in something before you start doing it, you are already behind. Consider instead developing the skills and strategies necessary to take on the risky projects. To step up into the unknown with confidence. How do people get promoted? Visibility. How can you achieve visibility? Be willing to take on the big tasks. That’s the secret. It’s being willing to take on the big tasks that makes you able to take on the big tasks. Being able to step up with confidence to new tasks will get you the opportunities to demonstrate your ability to manage the big tasks.
This does not mean promising to do a task for which you have no skills or experience upon which to build. I would not recommend volunteering to conduct brain surgery if you have no medical training. This also does not mean falsifying your background, skills, or experience to get a job. What it does mean is that you have prepared yourself to take on challenging projects, high profile projects, or new tasks with confidence, not from knowing the path and the outcome in advance, but from knowing that you don’t know everything now, but you have the skills to lead a team of people to find the answers and figure it out. So what are the skills you will need? It’s all about maintaining strong management fundamentals while learning and analyzing.
Attitude – Show confidence in your (and your team’s) ability to succeed. Confidence will be contagious, and when people have confidence that they can do something, they are more likely to actually do it. Don’t dwell on the downside. Address risks as something to be managed.
Communication – With high visibility comes the need for more communication. Over communicating, or not controlling the message, can create additional risks to the project. Focus on progress, new information, and successes. Develop a solid project narrative, and make sure the communication plan is specific about who needs what information, and who needs to be involved in decision making.
Management – If you are stepping into unknown territory, the reality is that you will make a lot of assumptions, and you should constantly test and adjust those assumptions. The same with metrics. You must develop strong management fundamentals, and expect to spend more time managing the work than you would on a a more familiar task.
Learning as you go – This is a task that must be managed. Don’t expect to learn what you need to know by “winging it”. Also, business does not stop while you (and your team) come up to speed. You need to plan for the work to go on and for specific learning tasks to occur – often at nearly the same time. Developing a knowledge management strategy will be as critical as the plan, the schedule, or any the management fundamentals.
Team Development – Who you bring to the party may be the most important factor of all. Whether this is a project or a new role, you will need strong support, good advice. For a high risk project, you will need a team that excels in creativity, a team with a broad set of experiences and skill sets, and above all, a team that is comfortable with uncertainty. Or of not comfortable, at least accepting. Successfully leading that team into the unknown requires that you create an environment where failures are part of the job, where getting it wrong is good news (because you now have more information than you had before), and where teamwork is paramount. You must create a safe environment for others to take the risks with you. Building a strong network, a strong team, and promoting their success will reflect that success back to you exponentially.