Cohesion is a beautiful thing. In society, organizations, and even in nature, groups of people or animals move together to achieve a collective goal. That feeling of unity is powerful. In our society, if one of the groups fails, people within the organization roll up their sleeves, step forward, and start filling in the gaps. After all, the wheels on the team’s engine must keep turning, and things must keep getting done.
In project management, it’s not uncommon to have more seats on the bus than people to fill them in. Even if a project is in the beginning stages, there’s often a realization that more work is required than there are competent people available to complete the work. When that happens, less experienced or newly onboarded resources are in a prime position to create a role that will quickly elevate their status on the team.
Step 1: When You’re Brought Into a Project and Your Role Does Not Exist Yet
Imagine this scenario: A team realizes it cannot handle the workload at its current capacity. To mitigate the risk, they bring in additional resources and firepower. Even though the work was getting done by the current team, the pace to complete some activities would not allow them to meet key project milestones. There are a few reasons why this could happen beyond just not having enough boots on the ground. Cultural understanding, communication challenges, unaligned competencies, or even burnout are some of the many reasons for missed deadlines.
When you arrive on the project, it’s important to recognize that the team has been juggling a variety of challenges while covering responsibilities left uncovered by a team member’s departure or a hole in the project staffing. This way of working is inefficient at best and detrimental to the project’s success! Upon your arrival, you might notice a seemingly hodge podge approach to taping over open holes in a project. When you see this scattered system, you’ll know it’s your cue to step onto the field and up to the plate, and start bringing more methods to the proverbial madness.
To start claiming activities as your own, you can use phrases such as the following:
- “I can/will support you on this”
- “Need me to follow up on that?”
- “Do you want me to draft that to help you save some time?”
Hopping into a new role often requires first creating that new role. This is your opportunity to transform a position into a role and make it your own. By seeing a need, you’re in a prime position to answer it by fully owning a part of the project.
Step 2: Take On More Activities
As you create this new role, it’s normal to start grabbing more activities as you see them. If something feels tangentially related to the role you’re creating, you should start doing it. It’s fun. It’s nice. You’re showing up and serving your team. All cool, right?
Now take a step back and look at your creation! Do you see the issue? Your role is now so heterogenous that it looks more like a seven-legged horse with wings and feathers than a simple horse. In doing all the activities under the sun, you somehow created something that doesn’t (or shouldn’t) exist. But that’s ok!
You have a wide enough scope of roles and responsibilities at this stage in one position. It’s time to start scaling back and orienting yourself to the areas that actually fit together.
Step 3: Put Up Boundaries
While looking your newly created seven-legged horse creature straight in the eye will be tough, it’s time to amputate the wings! Here, you must make sense of all the various areas of the new role you’ve created and decide which ones go well together or what you feel confident you can do exceptionally well.
You’ll likely decide to take on A, B, and C tasks as you analyze the various activities. However, looking at D, you might realize it’s better as a delegated task or as part of someone else’s scope.
By whittling away at the role, you’re creating something more coherent. You define what you’re responsible for and, consequently, what you’re not responsible for. Through this definition, you can ensure that team members will come to you for what’s in your scope and go to other people to take on what’s in theirs. You can now take work off team members’ plates and complete it more efficiently. As such, you become known as the person who does the activity. You’re the doer, the executor, and the go-to person to get things done within your scope, and the great thing is… everyone knows it!
Step 4: Extend Responsibilities On Your Terms
By this point in the new role, your philosophy differs significantly from when you entered the project. That’s because your job has now changed from the start of the project to your most recent day on the job. During that journey, you can steer the change in a way that will allow you and your team to be more successful. You’re in the driver’s seat of defining the terms of engagement, which means you’re also in the driver’s seat of deciding where your skills match the project’s needs.
When you jump outside of the boundaries put up by yourself, and for yourself, you get to discover new areas. You get to see how other teams’ work. You get to see how other entities work. You get to see how other people operate. These broad discoveries allow you to gain perspective outside the homogeneous ball of activity that is yours and yours alone. Then, you can decide whether to pull it into your scope, leave it where it is and suggest how that piece should work to best interact with your scope (make your demands!), or just store it in your mind as an extra piece of knowledge.
There’s something funny that happens when others take notice of you peeking in at their mode of operation. By default, they turn the tables and ask what you’re doing on the project. This change of perspective allows you the opportunity to share your new role and, as such, open yourself up to be the person who offers advice on a specific topic. You know about what they’re doing, and you know what others are doing.
That broader scope allows you to address what you’re hearing rather than stepping in without listening to what’s happening in other people’s lanes. Rather than making your new role a reactive position for when things go wrong, you are equipped to tackle challenges before they occur proactively. You can only do this if your ear is on the ground listening and positioning yourself as a trusted mentor.
Step 5: Predict the Interdependencies
By this point in your journey, you’ve taken a jumbled mess and turned it into something clear, cohesive, and complimentary to the project’s needs. Now it’s time to shift away from discovery mode and into prediction mode.
As the veteran and go-to on the team, this position does not mean you become the loudest voice in the room. Instead, you help buoy ideas whenever you experience those aha moments pinpointing the project’s blockers. Often, project structures are not set to bring out the best in all team players. There are typically three types of voices that can slow or stunt the progress your team has made. These include:
- Personality types where quieter voices get dampened
- Insurance that the right information is given in the right room
- Rising above leadership’s predisposed beliefs and bureaucracy
Rather than bringing teams together, project structures often silo people off. Growing beyond the role and connecting with the surrounding areas allows you to connect the dots and see the interdependence between each role, making you a true leader in your space!