Project Management Institute

Bringing meaning to work


by John Sullivan, PMP, Contributing Editor

THERE’S AN OLD JOKE about a guy that ends up in a swamp, neck-deep in water and alligators, trying to figure out how he got there. That’s the punch line. The setup to the joke is that he was told to “drain the swamp.” These days, his boss probably told him that “the team envisions a dry spot here.”

Work assignments aren’t as clear as they used to be. In Management Challenges for the 21st Century [HarperCollins, May 1999], Peter Drucker explains this in part by saying, “What is to be done is always obvious in manual work.” But this is not the case in knowledge work. Despite having statements of work and scope documents that define a project, many assignments are ambiguous and vague. That’s not entirely the boss’ fault.

Changes in organizational structures over the last 20 years helped create ambiguity in work assignments by eliminating layers of staff and blurring some lines of responsibility. The work done by these layers of staff, including the job of interpreting strategy and translating it into action, was handed over to teams.

An article in Fortune [3 April 1995, “The Struggle to Create an Organization for the 21st Century”] mentioned the “Horizontal Corporation” as a place where teams provided the foundation of organizational design. The teams featured in that article were set up around processes, not functional departments, and process owners were installed as the top managers. Those teams were responsible for everything in their respective process and essentially had no boss to seek out for advice. That meant they had to know more than how to do the work—they had to figure out what work needed to be done to improve their process.

Figuring out the “what” means interpreting work assignments that are less than obvious. It means finding ways to “cut delivery times by 10 percent” or coming up with ways to reach some utopian desired state like “an envisioned dry spot.” To avoid being eaten by the alligators you have to find ways to bring some definition to these kinds of assignments.


John Sullivan, PMP, is a founding member of PMI’s Dayton/Miami Valley Chapter. Send comments on this column to

The prerequisite for better defined work assignments is a clearer role. Organizational change consultant Price Pritchett recommends that you create “role clarity” in your job by “taking personal responsibility for figuring out the top priorities, then pointing yourself in that direction” [booklet, “New Work Habits for a Radically Changing World,” p. 144, Pritchett & Associates]. Seeking out and doing the top priorities doesn’t mean abandoning the job description, it means fine-tuning your job to increase your effectiveness.

One of the most effective ways to fine-tune your job is to tactfully question vague assignments. Asking the boss a few questions up front can help elicit the true scope and purpose of the work. Often the simplest questions can produce the most meaningful answers. Here are some of the most effective ones:

What is the Goal of This Assignment? This is a good opener. Used in the proper context—and said with the right tone of voice—it doesn’t question the assignment itself or indirectly question the boss’ authority or competence in making the assignment. An explanation of the overall purpose of an assignment can quickly and effectively narrow its scope.

Who Should I See to Get Information and Assistance With This Assignment? By directing you to people and resources that have defined roles, the work assignment is indirectly defined. Some bosses will answer this question negatively and tell you whom not to see or what not to do, which also defines the work and prevents wasted effort.

How Will You Know When This Work Is Done? Use this one carefully. For extremely vague assignments, you can use this question to help the boss to identify “exit criteria”—the set of conditions that constitute completion. Knowing these conditions, you can work backwards to determine what actions are required to meet them.

What Is the Next Step? Most bosses have at least some idea of how to execute a task and this question can help elicit a starting point and a direction. Knowing how and where to start a task can help eliminate hours of anguish thinking about where to begin and can prevent false starts.

NOWADAYS, FIGURING OUT what the work is supposed to be is as important as doing it. It’s no longer just the boss’ job. Knowing that fact can mean the difference between getting a challenging, rewarding assignment or getting stuck with something that can never be done right—or never be done at all. ■

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

August 2000 PM Network



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