By Liz Ryan There's a situation in business that tends to derail even the most accomplished, battle-tested manager. It occurs when such a vet takes on a new role, either a promotion or a position at another company, and is handed this job description: Figure Out What We Need, and Do It.
Usually, the assignment isn't as simple as developing a marketing plan or even launching a new product. Rather, the challenge is enormous and daunting: Perhaps you're creating a new division from disparate pieces of an existing company, or developing a product line that's radically divergent from the company's core product mix. No one has made any substantive decisions to guide you -- and there's no old hand around to offer advice.
KEY PLAYERS. Soon after you've been awarded this plum, your boss will breeze into your office and ask: "How's it going? Getting your feet under you?" You'll be dying to say: "I have absolutely no idea what's going on." But you won't, because everyone from your co-workers to your family is counting on you not to drown, even when it feels as though you're trying to drink from a fire hose.
The normal temptation, in the near-panic you may feel in such circumstances, is to just do something -- anything -- so that you at least look busy and feel productive. I don't recommend it. I would attack the beast differently -- and much more methodically.
Start by figuring out which players in your company care about your project and depend on its success -- and probably had something to do with dreaming it up. This may sound like an exercise in internal politics, but it isn't. Even if it takes a month, you need to get the top dogs to fill you in on the history of your initiative, the arguments for and against it, and the personalities on both sides. That information will be 10 times more instructive than reams of data or customer satisfaction reports.
LOOK, LEARN -- LEAP. Review what you learn with your manager as you go, so that he or she is never blind-sided. Keep others informed of your research as appropriate (logistically and politically). Then pause -- and double check to make sure you've learned everything that's important internally about the birth of the Big Hairy Project.
Next, build on this foundation by gathering external, expert knowledge. Interview the people who might buy the product, or join the joint venture, or invest in the spinoff, or what have you. Only then does it make sense to start planning specific actions. Once you have a master strategy in mind, you can put dates to milestones and move forward.
It's at this critical moment that you'll most likely have to deal with the key issue: Managing the human side of the equation. As the project gains momentum, there will be more people to keep apprised of its progress. You'll need to circle back with the senior-level execs you interviewed at the beginning -- before you set out to reach each major milestone -- to make sure you're still in sync with the company's overall strategy.
BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST. It's almost certain, moreover, that heretofore silent players will pop up with ideas they expect you to incorporate at the last minute. A number of them will have radically different views on how to move forward, and you'll likely need help mediating those conflicts. It might make sense, at that point, to create an advisory committee that can shoulder this task -- and filter out all but the best suggestions.
Most important will be choosing the trusted lieutenants you'll have to rely on if you expect to survive this fire hose experience. Here's a great interview question to use as you're evaluating possible No. 2s: "Can you tell me about a time when you had to make something important come to life and had absolutely no idea where to begin?"
And here's the all-important rating scale for the answers to that question:
"I produced a fully staged opera, in Italian, with a 300-piece orchestra as a high school sophomore." (You're hired)
"I sold the most widgets last year of any salesperson in Widget Corp.'s history." (You're not hired)
"I managed a staff of 450 patient representatives in a managed-care customer service facility, maintaining an average of two minutes hold time." (You're so, so not hired)
"I created the Apollo 11 program." (Okay -- you can have my job.) Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT