Level 1. Work you can say no to – Say no to it. Say no effectively as you can, but say it. Saying no to level 1 work frees you up for the higher levels.
Level 2. Work you can get someone else to do – Get someone else to do it. Give the work to someone who considers the work a good reach, or a growth opportunity. This isn’t about shirking responsibility, it’s about growing young talent. Maybe you can spend a little time mentoring and the freed up time doing higher level work. Make sure you give away the credit so next time others will ask you for the opportunity to do this type of work for you.
Level 3. Work you’ve done before, but can’t wiggle out of – Do it with flair, style, and efficiency; do it differently than last time, then run away before someone asks you to do it again. Or, do it badly so next time they ask someone else to do it. Depending on the circumstance, either way can work.
Level 4. Work you haven’t done before, but can’t wiggle out of – Come up with a new recipe for this type of work, and do it so well it’s unassailable. This time your contribution is the recipe; next time your contribution is to teach it to someone else. (See level 2.)
Level 5. Work that scares others – Figure out why it scares them; break it into small bites; and take the smallest first bite (so others can’t see the failure). If it works, take a bigger bite; if it doesn’t, take a different smallest bite. Repeat, as needed. Next time, since you’ve done it before, treat it like level 3 work. Better still, treat it like level 2.
Level 6. Work that scares you – Figure out why it scares you, then follow the steps for level 5.
Level 7. Work no one knows to ask you to do – You know your subject matter better than anyone, so figure out the right work and give it a try. This flavor is difficult because it comes at the expense of work you’re already signed up to do and no one is asking you to do it. But you should have the time because you followed the guidance in the previous levels.
Level 8. Work that obsoletes the very thing that made your company successful – This is rarified air – no place for the novice. Ultimately, someone will do this work, and it might as well be you. At least you’ll be able to manage the disruption on your own terms.
In the end, your task, if you choose to accept it, is to migrate toward the work that obsoletes yourself. For only then can you start back at level 1 on the ladder of your own making.
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Mike Shipulski brings together people, culture, and tools to change engineering behavior. He writes daily on Twitter as @MikeShipulski and weekly on his blog Shipulski On Design.