You’re an expert at what you do. You understand how your work fits into the bigger picture of your organization, you have the experience to know what to do in a variety of situations, and you know what it takes to deliver top results. You also likely have a well-worn, tested approach to how you get the work done, and that workflow is totally ingrained in your day-to-day approach to work. You’re as productive as anyone else in your organization, with the expertise to match, and you have the performance reviews to back it up.
Given all that…initiative work is a little different than your day-to-day work. The intent of initiatives is to change how things are done in your organization — to help that environment get better over time. This may involve updating a process, implementing a tool, increasing customer capabilities or some other way of improving the way your organization produces what it produces.
Most people get assigned to initiatives, and you’re just as appropriate as anyone else to be put in charge. After all, you’ve got the subject matter expertise. And the common belief is that subject matter expertise is the most important thing to know when it comes to managing an initiative. It’s also widely assumed that managing an initiative is so basic that it can be done in the midst of all the other day-to-day activities you have to do.
Historically, though, the track record of successfully delivering on initiatives has been pretty poor. And initiatives don’t always meet the mark in terms of the results they’re supposed to achieve. Clearly, subject matter expertise isn’t enough to ensure success.
To be fair, these kinds of initiatives are a fairly recent development, so anyone who’s climbed the chain prior to this may not have a clear sense of what initiatives are. They may call them initiatives, but they don’t have a specific process or tools to manage them. And since they don’t see that managing initiatives is something special, they wouldn’t even know why special processes or tools would be needed.
To understand why initiatives have to be managed differently than day-to-day work, let’s get back to the title of this post. A dog has a certain approach to digging up bones. They don’t take their time; they get after it, and they take it seriously. They’ll move their arms as fast as they can, throwing dirt everywhere, and they’re usually very successful at eventually uncovering that bone.
But would you let a dog dig up an ancient bone at an archeology site? They’re subject matter experts in uncovering bones. They’re efficient and effective at it. They would no doubt dig it up.
But they’d also rip into the ground and likely end up damaging the delicate artifact in the process. Instead, you’d probably choose an archeologist who also knows a lot about digging up bones but using a different approach.
In the same way, people assigned to manage initiatives need to use a different approach from their day-to-day workflow in order to be successful. You may be an expert in what you do and how to do it, but you might not be an expert in how to change it. Professionals do this work for a living. It’s an art and a science. You don’t need to become a professional, but you do need to recognize that it’s a high skill.
Just as a dog digging up a bone is doing different work than an archaeologist excavating a site, operational and initiative work are different. Operational work, the work you do every day, is repetitive, in the moment and very important. You can’t afford not to do it, and if it gets slowed down, you’ll be in trouble for it. It also typically involves a short timeframe.
Initiative work, on the other hand, usually stretches out over longer periods of time, as much as six weeks or more, and it doesn’t have to be done on a daily basis. You want to get it done, but the reality is, operational work will take priority. As a result, the timing on initiative work tends to get pushed out — and sometimes it won’t get done at all.