Adaptability: Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes
To learn more about someone, you need to walk in a mile in their shoes. Or so the old proverb goes. Well hopefully not literally walking in someone’s shoes. I know there are a few pairs of shoes I wouldn’t want to walk in like Bomb Disposal, Neuro Surgery or Manure Spreader. Walking in the shoes of Broadway Singer, Best Selling Author, and Sci-Fi Geek is more my style. What that proverb is really saying is that if you really want to know and understand someone you need to walk in their shoes or at least follow them around in a non-stalker this-won’t-get-a-restraining-order-put-on-me sort of way.
One of the larger changes in organization lately is the concept of having people be more adaptable in taking on different roles. Business Analysts performing Project Management and Quality Control roles are quite common. It’s becoming common for Project Managers to step into the Business Analyst role from time to time. You could find yourself working as a PM on one project and a BA on another. Having people be more adaptable and flexible is a benefit for organizations that are trying to utilize team members more fully and to avoid resource constraints on projects. It even goes as far as crossing organizational lines in having a resource play a role under technology at one point and then playing another role under the business or operations areas at another point.
Being adaptable is important as it allows you to move between different roles more gracefully or even how to better play a dual role more effectively. It also provides a deeper insight into how other roles with the organization work thus giving you a wider set of skills to be more marketable and even more valued in your organization.
The important point to make is that you are really good in one discipline like business analysis or project management, weaker in other disciplines, and some disciplines you should avoid all together based on your skill sets. We all bring a special unique set of skills to the table. These natural talents make us who we are as individuals and help us perform in certain disciplines better than others. So being adaptable means picking those disciplines that are not your strong suit and learning more about them. It also means avoiding those disciplines where your natural talents and skills sets don’t match up at all with the role – like jumping from Business Analyst to Neuro Surgeon.
Being adaptable is more about understanding other disciplines that are closely related to yours more broadly or just figuring out how these other guys tick. Why bother? How is learning more about another discipline going to do anything for me?
Understanding a role more deeply by observing it closely or actually doing it for a while can be of great benefit. It’s about knowing enough to be dangerous. The expectation isn’t to know the role deeply and completely but rather to have a broad understanding of that role. If you are a BA playing the role of part time PM, you need to understand enough about the project management role to execute it successfully for that project but no one is expecting you to run a master class on project management. Apply the 80 / 20 or Pareto Rule here. Learn the 80% of tasks that are performed most frequently and leave then 20% on the table. If you need help with that 20% later, find an expert or mentor who knows that area really well and tap them on the shoulder. Figuring out the most important tasks you need to be successful and learning them is the trick. Don’t boil the ocean and try to learn everything about being a PM.
Partner with an expert. Find an expert in the discipline your our trying to learn more about in your organization. You need to find a partner that you can develop a good relationship with and trust. Business Analysis, Project Management and Quality Assurance are complex disciplines. There is a reason they all have a BOK (book of knowledge). Having a mentor or coach who is an expert in their discipline to guide you through the basics and key deliverables for that role will help a lot when you are starting out. Later on you will be able to work with them on the 20% or the tougher stuff of their discipline.
This adaptability concept grew from a colleague I had many years ago who was a project manager. My colleague had zero understanding (and I mean not one tiny ounce) of business analysis. I had zero understanding of project management. We spent a lot of time talking about our roles and getting to a common understanding of why we both do the things we do as part of our discipline. Projects that we were working on together went more smoothly and we built a better working relationship. It took some time and it certainly wasn’t easy for either one of us but in the end we had about an 80% understanding of each other’s discipline and role. There are things in project management that to this day (I’m looking at YOU Mr. Earned Value calculations) that I don’t understand and frankly don’t want to understand. My colleague feels the same way about requirements traceability.
Then came the fateful day when we switched roles. Remember that movie “Freaky Friday” when a Mom and her daughter wake up in each other’s bodies? It wasn’t quite that dramatic or funny in real life. I was tasked with running several small projects and making sure they were implemented on schedule. My colleague was tasked with collecting requirements for changing a specific user interface to make it compliant with government regulatory requirements. We had an understanding of how each role worked broadly and used that to our advantage.
As time went on both of us became more and more like fish out of water and we were both struggling with the finer points of these new roles. We were struggling with the 20% and while the 80% was going smoothly. We reached out to each other for some help on these finer points that were giving us such a headache. Using the working relationship, we built, we were able to help each other on the 20% using our more in depth knowledge of our disciplines to help each other move forward.
This story can be a fairy tale or fable in today’s organizations. Things get thrown at us and we are expected to adapt. Sometimes we get help, sometimes we don’t. Adaptability takes a little time and planning to make it work. It requires building relationships with other disciplines to understand their roles in a broad sense long before the “opportunity” to work in another role is offered.
Consider the line between business and technology more blurred. Taking this a little bit further, we can learn to perform business or operations roles to learn them more deeply. It’s not all about technology. When I was working in manufacturing, I actually worked in the warehouse restocking parts and shipping them. I only did that job for 3 days in total spread out over a period of a month. I didn’t learn all the fine details of the job but I learned enough to design and implement a darn good process for shipping and a new shipping interface. Things like box size and weight didn’t make much sense in shipping until I actually had to deal with them. Things like putting items to be shipping on a packing list sorted by aisle in the warehouse so when folks where picking products from the shelfs they could do so quickly. The shipping station was in the middle of the warehouse or row M. So a picking slip had to have products picked from row A first and move to row M for certain products. Other products had to be picked backwards from row AG first then towards row M. Keep in mind the products move locations in the warehouse all the time so putting this logic together was a challenge – and a lot of fun. I wouldn’t have been able to do it as quickly without having worked in the warehouse first.
Now going out and learning to be a bomb disposal guy is not something I’m willing to try. I’ll stick to the less explosive stuff. My hands aren’t that steady. Being adaptable and understanding other roles in the organization has always been a strength that can be exploited to deliver higher quality projects faster. So walking in each other’s shoes or in a better sense understanding each other’s roles across the organization builds stronger and more effective relationships.
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