On Poorly Defined Assignments

One of my biggest pet peeves at work is when a manager gives me an assignment that’s very poorly defined. This almost always happens to me at the beginning of a new role. It goes along the lines of “I’ve noticed this method/system/something we use isn’t as effective/efficient/pretty as I want it to be. Please improve it.” Or “I’ve been really wanting something that does this for a  while, please make that.”

To me, there are many issues with such tasks. First of all, as someone that hasn’t used this method/system/something very much, I have no understanding of its purpose or flaws. Secondly, there is something about it that feels cheap to me. Like you don’t actually have work for me to do so you’re giving me this thing to work on in the meantime.

These assignments also scare me a little. Sometimes they feel like tests (my sister tells me that they are…my manager swears to me that they’re not). Sometimes, when my manager doesn’t really have an idea of what he wants, I have a hard time knowing if the direction I’m going is even remotely correct.

All issues and fears aside, I obviously still have to show my boss something at the end of the day or he’ll wonder what I do with the 40 hours he pays me to be at the office for.

So here’s what I did:

  1. I kept asking questions. Every week I would spend a few hours contemplating this vague task. I’d come up with ideas and questions. Then at our weekly one-on-ones I’d ask. I’d ask and I’d ask until a more tangible thing emerged. I swear to you this process took several weeks.
  2. Once my questions were answered, I broke down the task (see last week’s post). Once I had an idea of what I was supposed to achieve, I created a list of steps to achieve it. This helped making the task even more tangible as it didn’t necessarily focus on an end result that still wasn’t crystal clear, but on steps that I could accomplish.
  3. I shared my work and asked for feedback. Now, every week I spend some time working through my list of steps. At our one-on-ones now, I show my boss what I have and ask for his feedback. I ask if this is in line with what he thought he wanted. If not, I ask what he saw differently. I also tell him of any issues I’m having or any parts of the assignment that I believe to be unattainable.

To be honest. It was really frustrating for those first few weeks. I hate having work that I don’t know how to do. But it was really worth it spending that initial time getting a better understanding of the assignment. Now I think the work I’m doing is more effective and will actually achieve something my boss will use. Hopefully!


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