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How to Dramatically Improve Your Probability of Success When Taking on a Big New Thing

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How to Dramatically Improve Your Probability of Success When Taking on a Big New Thing

I was just given the chance to move into a new role in a different department at my company. It’s a lateral move, but I think it presents a ton of potential opportunities if I play my cards right. Unfortunately, the job is in an area I don’t have much experience in, I’ll have a new boss and I’ll be working with people I’ve never met. What can I do to make sure I take advantage of the situation and get off to fast and positive start?

First off, congratulations on your new job. I’m a big believer that change presents the best opportunities for advancement. I talk about this subject at length in Stealing the Corner Office. Just by embracing this new career challenge you’re already setting yourself up for long term success. And as much as I applaud your ambition, I also know a move like this carries with it a reasonable dose of stress and uncertainty. At least, it would for me. Whenever I face these types of new opportunities I’m usually about 80% confident and excited and about 20% nervous and foreboding. The little voice in my head that speaks on behalf of the 20% asks questions like:

  • Will everyone be able to tell I have no idea what I’m doing?
  • What happens when I don’t understand the new lingo everyone is using?
  • What will I do when I screw this all up and have to go back and start over?
  • Will my new boss regret her decision after our first meeting?
  • Is there anything I can do to make sure I nail this?
     

I tend to feel this apprehension whenever I’m starting something new and big. A new job, a big project, a major presentation. It’s not that I don’t have confidence in myself, its more about the unknown, and about making sure I do all the right things to get off to a solid start. And, while on the one hand, I’d like to punch that little voice right in the nose, on the other hand, he reminds me to stay focused and put in a little extra effort to give myself the best chance of success. That little voice keeps me sharp, and to one extent or another, I probably owe him for a lot of the successes I’ve had over the years.

Whenever I’m starting something new and unfamiliar or something that carries a degree of risk but a potentially high reward, I like to follow a standard game plan to build early momentum. Here are three steps I always take to dramatically improve my probability of success when taking on a big new thing. It doesn’t guarantee victory – nothing will – but it certainly improves your odds.

1. Reduce your focus to one first deliverable

The biggest mistake I see people make when taking on a new role or a big project, is to allow themselves to be overwhelmed by the complexity of it all. Inevitably there are a million things you should be doing. Research, interviews, assessment, planning, ongoing work, daily problems – there are an unlimited number of things to deal with when you take on a new role or project. The mistake is to try and handle them all – even to pay attention to them all. What too many managers do is slowly wade through everything and slowly emerge out the other side after 6 months or a year once they’ve figured it all out. This is a big mistake in my opinion. Months of research. Countless interviews with stakeholders. Pilot projects, tiger teams, steering committees. These are traps. They are corporate constructs created ostensibly to improve effectiveness but which in reality only serve to defer rapid progress.

My recommendation when starting a new role or taking on a big project, is to focus on one thing only. A deliverable. It can be a plan. It can be a strategy. But its better if it’s something that actually delivers value to the company. Fix one thing. Implement one thing. Get something done to build momentum and prove you can make things happen. Even if the thing you deliver is quite small, it’s more important that you demonstrate an ability to execute something from start to finish than the size of whatever it is you deliver. Way too many managers take on a new role and find themselves still in the learning phase 6 months down the road. You’ll hear them in meetings saying things like, “Well, I’ve only been here 6 months but …” or they’ll always talk about what they did at their last company with comments like, “When I was at Apple we used to …”. You should be trying to get out of that phase as quickly as possible.

My advice for getting off to a quick start is to reduce your focus down to one specific deliverable within the first 90 days – 60 days is even better. And you should be willing to sacrifice other activities in order to deliver it. Don’t spend your days researching or interviewing or auditing … just do something. Ignore the distractions that surround you and pick something to deliver. It’s a critical first stake in the ground that tells your boss and others you’re capable of delivering.

2. Build the “artist’s rendition” of your desired end state

Another great way to get off to a fast start is to build the vision for what you want to achieve in a way that allows people to imagine what the future state will be when you’ve had time to execute. It gives people some instant gratification even in a long term project scenario. This tactic always reminds me of the artist’s rendition of a condo building that you see in the pre-construction phase of a development. You go into a showroom and you can see and touch exactly what your condo will look like before its even built. Model homes, brochures, drawings – all these things are designed to get you excited enough to invest – emotionally and financially – into something you won’t actually get until well into the future.

I use this strategy at work in much the same way. If I’m taking on a new role or team or a project that will take many months or years to complete, I like to start by building out the artist’s rendition of what the future will look like. It can take the shape of visual mock ups in the case of a big project like a web site or software application, it can be in the form of a metrics dashboard that shows what a new level of performance will be once you’ve implemented a new process or it can be financial model that shows the impact of proposed strategy changes.

My advice for getting off to a fast start and building momentum is to take the time to produce the artist’s rendition of your long term goal. It’s a great way to give your boss and other stakeholders something to get excited about today even when they won’t actually get to enjoy it until much later.

3. Deliver a 3 phase plan to create alignment

Once you’ve focused in on one thing to quickly demonstrate your ability to deliver, and you’ve gotten everyone excited about the artist’s rendition of your big idea or long term strategy, you now need to build a really compelling plan to execute it. This is where the three phase plan comes in handy. My general recommendation is to use a 30-60-90 day plan for this. It’s a great way to align your boss and other key stakeholders to what you’re going to deliver and more importantly, how you will collectively measure success. One of the great things about this type of plan is it doesn’t require any specific domain or functional expertise to build. It’s something you can deliver on whether or not you fully understand the nuances of the job yet. When I’m feeling in over my head, I rely on this plan to demonstrate my value quickly while I try to figure everything out. I won’t go into more detail on this here.

Check out these blogs for more details and a free template:

In my experience, you should try to execute all three of these steps within the first 60 days at worst. I would shoot for the first 30 days if you can. If you’ve only been in the new job or managing the new project for a month and you’ve already delivered something tangible, given people a vision for the end state and aligned them to a three stage plan for success, you’re off to a great start.

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