Just Because You Can, It Doesn’t Mean You Should

On thinking twice before asking people to do stuff.

Buzz Aldrin about to unhook himself from parachute webbing that's supporting him in mid-air.

Several years ago I was working on a project that involved coordinating the fieldwork activities of different universities from across North America. During my second year on the project my boss asked me to start documenting how much of my time was spent on each of these 10+ contributing organizations, and he wanted me to start sending him pie charts depicting this distribution on a regular basis.

As I thought through the request and what would be required to make it happen, I felt a lot of things. Enthusiasm wasn’t one of them. Up until then, there had been no need for me to record the details of my work hours, so I’d have to set up a new system for tracking my time. More importantly, I’d have to change my daily work routine on an ongoing basis. And since the purpose of the request wasn’t discussed with me in very much detail, it felt like the underlying issue was that I wasn’t being trusted to manage my time. With a clearer sense of the goal, I might have been able to suggest a different, less disruptive approach that would have resulted in something that was just as good.

Despite my reservations, I took my boss’ enthusiasm to heart, came up with a plan for generating the required info, and started categorizing and recording my time. By the following week my boss’ enthusiasm had turned into a vague unawareness of the original request, and the feedback I received about my chart had more to do with its colour scheme than its content. I felt a little disillusioned and kind of silly for working on something that I had known was going to be a waste of time.

I think about this situation whenever I’d like to introduce an idea that will have a direct impact on other people’s work. Good project managers appreciate the weight of every request they make of their team and they understand that just because they can ask someone to do something, it doesn’t mean they should.

I get really excited when I come up with a new idea that I think is going to make things better for the teams I work with. But when left unchecked, excitement alone rarely translates into a good result. Following a structured process for evaluating and communicating ideas helps me keep my emotions in check and keeps me from wasting other people’s time. The three-step process of The Gut Check, The Rundown, and The Pitch works well for me.

More important than the process itself, I always try to keep the following in mind when pitching a new idea: at its most basic level, what I’m doing is asking people to alter their lives because I had a thought.

That thought better be worth it.

Or, like most other managers, just tell people what to do without thinking it through first. But maybe that’s why people don't tend to quit their job, they quit their manager.