No matter what your job, you acquire new tasks and projects on a regular basis. Sometimes they are well-defined and routine; other times they are speculative and new. As you complete each one successfully, your assignments will become larger and more complex, until eventually you’ll be asked to do the impossible. What do you do then? Below are some tips for the times when your first reaction is, “You want me to do what? By when?”
Understand the parameters. First, take a deep breath, and make sure you understand exactly what the task is and all the relevant parameters. What are the underlying estimates and assumptions, and are they reasonable? What are the resources that you will be able to take advantage of—time, people, money, work already completed? What exactly is the final product required? What level of quality is required? How firm is the deadline? Is there a specific method that must be used? Once you truly understand the scope of the project, you will be able to assess just how impossible the task really is.
Learn Fast or Not At All. Does this project require you to learn tasks you wanted to learn anyway? A real deadline and some pressure can be great motivating factors. Can you find a class where you can use this assignment as a project or find an expert to work with? Have you done something similar that could be a model? If you have absolutely no background or interest in the subject, perhaps the project would be better served by finding someone else to lead it.
Ask Others. Find people who have worked on comparable projects and ask their advice. Provide as much detail as possible and ask if there are any methods you can use to improve your process or timeline (but remember, even with nine women, you can’t have a baby in a month). Ask your contacts about resources and educational opportunities. This is another time when your professional network is crucial—ask your colleagues to help you locate the needed people and resources.
Notify Interested Parties ASAP. If you’re in the middle of a project and realize it’s impossible, make that known as soon as you can. Talk to others working on the project to see if they have ideas for changes that might help. Talk to the end customers to see if they can get by with less, or if they prefer to wait longer to get what they initially requested. Talk to your supervisors to see where there is flexibility and where there are unchangeable requirements.
Offer Alternatives. If the project is truly impossible, can you do something else that will fulfill the end users’ needs? Offer alternatives: “I can’t do this, but I can do this other thing that is quite similar.” “I can’t do this, but I know someone who can, and here is that person’s contact information.” Never just say “No.” Instead, say “No, but …”
We all have many skills and abilities, but none of us can do everything. Know your limits, and don’t be afraid to define them.
Get Involved In The Discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (www.acs.org/network-careers).