Sunday, February 26, 2012

How well do you handle petty jobs at work ?

There is a certain fanciness about mentioning Innovation as one of the competencies that would take an organization to glorious heights in future. Innovation is always talked about at length by executives as one of the key things that would help an organization sustain and grow its momentum. It has been one of the areas that everyone wants to improve upon to drive their careers forward.

I think all this buzz around Innovation is largely justified given what the companies like Apple, Google and many others has done in the past. But sometimes this buzz overshadows the value of precise execution of the projects, which is sometimes even more important.

I talked about visionary organizations like Apple and Google but while these organizations were breaking paths on Innovation, China was silently gaining the mindshare of the people all around the world with its work primarily around manufacturing. Did they Innovate as well as the US companies ? Probably not but what they mastered was the art of executing well even if they were working on a product as general as a table cloth or a general decoration item or anything else (afterall, everything around looks to be "Made in China" ).
This example kind of gives me an idea that great careers could be build on the premise of Execution excellence even if the Innovation quotient of a person is somewhat reasonable (not great!). If Innovation is a sought-after skill in today's world, Execution excellence is a mandatory one.

Before i seem like making less sense, let me explain what i mean by Execution excellence. Simply put- Organizations make big plans promising bigger, grand results. The results remain just a promise on paper till someone goes in the field, makes his hands dirty and executes on the plan. Excellence in execution takes us closer to realizing those lavish plans. Though Execution of the projects is important, it increasingly amazes me to see that many people find the execution boring. Especially the part of execution where one has to go through those chores repeatedly, again and again in an almost monotonous manner. Let me give some examples here-
- One of the projects that i was involved in testing, at a crucial release stage, required a tester to do the Installation of the product almost countless times (more than 100) in different platform to debug an issue. To put it in other words, a tester needing to Setup OS (5-6 supported), Setup browser (again 5-6 versions), Install the Third party products, Install the Application under test and wait for the error. Though this was a routine job but was important to ensure a seamless customer experience.
- Another example, in an efficient functioning of any team, the regular housekeeping activities like managing of hardware, inventory, information etc. is important but at the same time routine and monotonous.
- Sending a weekly report when nothing significant has happened can be considered as boring and needless when it still serves important status needs of the recipients.
- For a manager, meeting his team regularly may be a routine affair and if not done may lead him to be quite out of sync.
- Again, a Tester going about executing the tests that have passed in the past just to ensure that nothing has regressed in the product (after all, not all testing can lead to bugs!).

This list can go on and on but the key questions are- Do we really give adequate importance to seemingly Petty jobs ? Can we do these jobs/tasks better than they are being currently done?

Further in this blog, i am sharing some of the thoughts/perspective around handling such tasks-

Understanding the role, bigger picture:

Harsha Bhogle in his book- "The Winning Way" talks about an interesting instance-

Unable to work out a way to get Tendulkar out, Naseer Hussain (in 2002 series), decided to frustrate him by bowling a largely negative outside the leg stump line. The man assigned to do the job was Ashley Giles, a workman like spinner who kept things tight. For the next 11 overs, he bowled the outside of leg stump to Tendulkar, a tactic that drew much criticism. But it did keep Tendulkar quiet and ended up frustrating him. "If you cant bowl him out, bore him out.", the critics said, but as Hussain suggested afterwards, it was a better option than Tendulkar getting a century! It was a boring job for Giles to do and the key lay in the Captain's communication of its importance. If a player knows his role and implements it well, a seemingly small role can become important.

It is thus important to understand the bigger picture the task is helping achieve. Every job on the earth has its own dull moments and more often the difference between "just" successful and "greatly" successful lies in how one handles those dull moments. It is also critical to understand one's role in handling petty tasks. As in this example, Giles knew the line he had to bowl and not try anything else. Role clarity comes with effective communication not only on Leader's part but also the follower's part. A follower can always ask right questions to understand/clarify what is expected of him.

Being a true team player:

Rahul Dravid in Harsha Bhogle's book- "The Winning Way" talks about his view-

I have noticed that good team players view success very differently from the rest. They are motivated without really worrying about the credit. That’s not always easy. Anyone who has fielded at Short leg, knows what a Thankless job it is, besides being risky. You put your body on the line, have to work damn hard and may have nothing to show for it. When given that position, there are those who are reluctant to put in the hard work, hoping that will be made to field in another position the next time around, and there are others who give it their best and actually become specialists.
Situations like diving or fielding, in which you put your body at risk, or where you are required to play a role outside your core-competence areas demand more work from a player and therefore require you to put the team before self. The funny thing is that you cannot hide your attitude from the team mates. If you're selfish, you will be found out in no time at all. But if you are a Team-player, the team will know and appreciate that as well.

True team player attitude calls for helping team deal with difficult (and also monotonous) tasks by setting an example. Handling petty tasks often require more patience and situational awareness than many of the other tasks. The way these tasks are handled often brings about the Leaders in people.

Having a Strong Professional value system:

Subroto Bagchi in his book- "The Professional" in one of the chapters makes a mention on how he had been able to do justice to his writing talents along with handling a high profile job. He has 3 books and multiple columns to his credit, he says-

...One point i want to make is importance of taking every assignment seriously. Whether i wrote a column or an invited occasional newspaper piece or for that matter a book, I gave it all i had. To me, my writing commitments were no different from a purely professional commitment at work. This called for many personal sacrifices because it was always like having two jobs.

Though his point is not exactly about handling monotonous task but many things that he talks about here are applicable to the context e.g. "Treating every assignment seriously", "I gave it all i had",
"Professional commitment, these are all valid metaphors for handling the dull, monotonous work. And if these are kept in mind, i believe every task will get the importance it deserves. So, having a strong Professional value system helps deal with any challenging or dull professional situation.

After all, no amount of Innovation can really help us completely get rid of seemingly boring jobs. So why not embrace it and give your best shot!

How do you handle petty jobs at work ?

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