Tag Archives: Initiative

How do you measure initiative?

A common feedback at performance appraisal meetings is to take more initiative. We all understand the presence or absence of initiative, but how does one know if one was taking enough initiative or not? Let’s examine one tool that does precisely that.

How can you tell someone who takes initiative? Well, mostly, you don’t have to tell her to do something – she is all by herself taking care of things without being asked to do so. On the contrary, how do you know if someone is not taking any initiative – chances are he is slacking off just doing the routine 9-5 work and generally waiting to be instructed at every step. Let’s develop the model from here.

Stage 1: ‘Wait’

Perhaps the worst and least desirable thing to to keep waiting for someone to come and tell what to do next. This means not only one is not taking any initiative, one is also playing extremely safe to maintain the status quo. We wall this as ‘wait’ on the five-point scale of initiative and is the lowest or default stage. There could be several reasons to be in this stage – demotivation, lack of interest, being too risk-averse or plain insubordination. It is extremely difficult to make someone wake up from this slumber and start being a little more proactive.

Stage 2: ‘Ask’

What does one do to get out of this wait state. Remember, we are talking about taking initiatives and not taking orders. A most natural behavior would be to ‘ask’ your manager to give you some more work! At this point, there is no confidence in us to go out and take up something by ourselves, so the only incremental change in behavior is to ask for work. Asking for work shows an increased awareness of one’s skills and competencies and a higher level of conscience that one must do more than what isbeing asked to do. We call this as ‘ask’ state and it represents the second step to be highly initiative. You will notice that unlike our friend in ‘wait’ state, the person in ‘ask’ state is generally beginning to get uncomfortable with the status quo and feels he could (and should) contribute more, but is not sure where to begin, or whether he has property rights to take up a certain task. He needs lots of support and direction as this point and any negative feedback can crush him and send him back to ‘wait’ state. So, a manager must be extra careful to provide him that little bit of support and understanding.

Stage 3: ‘Recommend’

How does one continue to demonstrate a genuine interest in state of affairs. In the ‘ask’ state, we are still not thinking and taking action, but is surely better than waiting forever. Once one has ‘asked’ for work a few times, two things happen: the person develops rapport with his manager and also develops some knowledge and competencies around the subject. This helps him to raise his stakes a little more by sticking his neck out once in a while and ‘recommend’ an opinion or a course of action to the manager. The act of recommending demonstrates that the person understands what’s happening instead of asking an open question whether he can do something, which essentially means that the person doesn’t really understand which is more important work and is asking his manager to make decisions for him.

Stage 4: ‘Act Independently but Report Immediately’

Now, imagine someone who has made several such recommendations, encounters  real-life situation where no one is around to take permission from. What does he do? He is surely confident of his understanding of the problem and has some idea of laying out a solution for the same. However, he is still not sure if that is the correct solution. This doesn’t stop him from taking the appropriate action that he deems fit, partly also because he has been positively supported by his manager in the past for sharing his opinions and recommendations about possible solutions, so what if not all of them were great ideas. So, off he goes and does whatever he feels is the best thing to do under the circumstances.

After doing something for the first-time by yourself, what is the most natural reaction apart from telling your mom? Telling your manager! Seems like a very right thing to do to build enough air cover should something go wrong – after all, he is still not sure if that is the best way to do to fix that problem. After all, he is only linearly building on his prior experiences, and thinks his manager will support him here too. This fourth stage is ‘taking independent action but reporting immediately’.

Stage 5: ‘Act Independently and Report Routinely’

What happens when the fourth stage behavior is not only actively supported by the manager, but also practiced a couple of times by the individual. It does supergood to the confidence of the individual not just about his subject matter skills, but also the rapport with his manager. Next time such a thing happens, he doesn’t wait for any instructions but simply takes independent action and – instead of immediately reporting, does what is ‘routine reporting’, meaning, he doesn’t feel the urge to either project it as a great accomplishment as a child doing something for the first time, not does he feel the need to build an air cover. He is ‘taking independent action and reporting routinely’.

So, here it is – the five-point model to identify behaviors at different stages of initiative. Try to visualize the behavior of someone new in his job, or working with a new manager, or someone who has just been promoted to take on new responsibilities. In pretty much all these situations, the scale of initiative will be reset and start from the first phase. Gradually, the rapport and confiedence will have to be built to keep moving on the higher stages of initiative. The irony is – when you reach the top stage of initiative, you are superperforming and getting ready for a promotion, and after promotion, you again enter an unknown world in the new role, and drop down back to to level one :). However, that should not be the reason not to take initiative, because only by taking sufficient initiative, you are opening up new avenues.

PS: This tool was introduced to me by my HR Manager, Mali, in ~1998. I haven’t been able to find any literature on it, but have practiced and shared with hundreds of people by now. I like its simplicity and amazing power to chart out your own course in any job, any role. Thanks Mali!

How do you measure your initiative?

What would you advise young engineers about to enter the workforce?

Last Sunday, we had annual alumni dinner of Bangalore chapter of my alma mater, JK Institute of Applied Physics and Technology. During this event, we also hosted final-year engineering students who were in town on an education tour. I was asked to make a presentation to them on a topic of my choice. Here is what I did – I put together ten things that I felt are the most important non-technical things that anyone graduating from campus to corporate should know – that no one will ever teach them! I am sharing them here. It’s possible your Top Ten list might be different than mine, but feel free to share other things that might be helpful to the young engineers entering workforce in 2010:

1. Ethics

  • Most of us relate to ethics only when it comes to money. However, ethics is a critical issue in every walk of work and life. My favorite definition of ethics is – ethics is doing the right thing even when you know that if you were to do the wrong thing, no one would come to know. Ethics applies to each one of us in every possible small and big thing.
  • Invest in long-term gains, not short-term benefits

2. Respect

  • Two-way street: give respect to get respect
  • Disagreement is not disrespect. This is especially relevant in a hierarchical society like ours that values compliance, especially with what elders / seniors tell us. However, at workplace, we deal with a much more democratic environment, and hence we must learn to distinguish between the two.
  • Respect for all – including self-respect
  • Doesn’t mean Sir / Ma’am anyone – respect is much beyond pleasantries, but also learn to respect with informality

3. Initiative

  • Five-level model of initiative
  • Take sensible Risks, make mistakes – learn from them and move on

4. Teamwork

  • Perhaps the most important change for new engineers – from an individual performance system in academics, the shift happens to a team-based performance where project success depends on team performance, and individual performance is often measured relative to other’s performance
  • Best way to improve teamwork is to help without being asked or expected
  • Leave ego at home – problems are solved by democratic methods

5. Hard Work and perseverance

  • To make a century, you have to stay at the crease for many hours. Similarly, overnight success comes after 15 years of hard work. Malcolm Gladwell talks of 10,000 hours to success – no short cuts
  • Work comes first, company’s brand and money comes much later – choose your employer for the kind of work you get and not the money.
  • Best job security: give more than what you are paid

6. Communication Skills

  • Learn to Listen
  • Learn to speak and make presentations – with / without Powerpoint
  • Watch your language – develop a language that helps you win friends and allows your ideas to be shared effortlessly
  • Learn email etiquettes

7. Learn to learn

  • Make sure you are always learning new things – the rate at which technology advances, whatever you have learnt will be history in just a few years!
  • Read, Read, Read
  • Develop curiosity – Five Whys: better be branded a stupid than live in ignorance
  • Volunteer for anything that you can learn from

8. Network, Network, Network

  • LinkedIn, Twitter, Blog
  • Industry seminars, workshops, IEEE, ACM, etc.
  • Develop personal and professional relations with like-minded people

9. Self-management / Professionalism

  • Time management
  • Commitment management
  • Invest in improving yourself always – you are only as good as your last work!
  • Set your goals – and follow them relentlessly

10. Work-life Balance

  • Develop hobbies as source of motivation, ideas from other walks of life, friends & refresh
  • Take vacations!

What would you advise young engineers about to enter the workforce?

Initiative + Continuous Improvement => Superior Performance

Disclaimer: I got this in an email. This is not written by me, and is not my intellectual property. If you know the original source to it, I will be happy to link to it, and if it is copyrighted, I will be happy to seek permission to repost on my site, or take it off, as the case might be. I am sharing it here because I think there is good value in this illustration that everyone can learn from. I enjoyed reading it, and hope you enjoy too 🙂

Every company has a performance appraisal system in place to measure the effectiveness of its employees. Employees are normally rated in most of the companies in the Good, Very Good, Excellent, Outstanding categories. Apart from the above, non performance category is also there, which is not depicted here). Needless to say everyone wants to be rated Outstanding.

What is the yard stick and how do you measure these aspects?  

  • Employee “A” in a company walked up to his manager and asked what my job is for the day?
  • The manager took “A” to the bank of a river and asked him to cross the river and reach the other side of the bank.
  • “A” completed this task successfully and reported back to the manager about the completion of the task assigned. The manager smiled and said “GOOD JOB”

Next day Employee “B” reported to the same manager and asked him the job for the day. The manager assigned the same task as above to this person also. 

  • The Employee “B’ before starting the task saw Employee “C” struggling in the river to reach the other side of the bank. He realized “C” has the same task.
  • Now “B” not only crossed the river but also helped “C” to cross the river.
  • “B” reported back to the manager and the manager smiled and said “VERY GOOD JOB

The following day Employee “Q” reported to the same manager and asked him the job for the day. The manager assigned the same task again.

  • Employee “Q” before starting the work did some home work and realized “A”, “B” & “C” all has done this task before. He met them and understood how they performed.
  • He realized that there is a need for a guide and training for doing this task.
  • He sat first and wrote down the procedure for crossing the river, he documented the common mistakes people made, and tricks to do the task efficiently and effortlessly.
  • Using the methodology he had written down he crossed the river and reported back to the manager along with documented procedure and training material.
  • The manger said “Q” you have done an “EXCELLENT JOB”.

The following day Employee “O’ reported to the manager and asked him the job for the day. The manager assigned the same task again.

“O” studied the procedure written down by “Q” and sat and thought about the whole task. He realized company is spending lot of money in getting this task completed. He decided not to cross the river, but sat and designed and implemented a bridge across the river and went back to his manager and said, “You no longer need to assign this task to any one”.
The manager smiled and said “Outstanding job ‘O’. I am very proud of you.”

What is the difference between A, B, Q & O????????
Many a times in life we get tasks to be done at home, at office, at play.
Most of us end up doing what is expected out of us. Do we feel happy? Most probably yes. We would be often disappointed when the recognition is not meeting our expectation.

Let us compare ourselves with “B”. Helping some one else the problem often improves our own skills. There is an old proverb (I do not know the author) “learn to teach and teach to learn”. From a company point of view “B” has demonstrated much better skills than “A” since one more task for the company is completed.

“Q” created knowledge base for the team. More often than not, we do the task assigned to us without checking history. Learning from other’s mistake is the best way to improve efficiency. This knowledge creation for the team is of immense help. Re-usability reduces cost there by increases productivity of the team. “Q” demonstrated good “team-player” skills,

Now to the outstanding person, “O” made the task irrelevant; he created a Permanent Asset to the team. If you notice B, Q and O all have demonstrated “team performance” over an above individual performance; also they have demonstrated a very invaluable characteristic known as “INITIATIVE”.

Initiative pays of every where whether at work or at personal life. If you put initiative you will succeed. Initiative is a continual process and it never ends. This is because this year’s achievement is next year’s task. You cannot use the same success story every year.

The story provides an instance of performance, where as measurement needs to be spread across at least 6-12 months. Consequently performance should be consistent and evenly spread.
Out-of-Box thinkers are always premium and that is what every one constantly looks out for. Initiative, Out-of-Box thinking and commitment are the stepping stone to success. Initiative should be life long. Think of out of the box.

This is a nice illustration that the ‘performance bar’ keeps getting higher and higher as the time goes by, and doing something the same way won’t count as equally good performance as the last time. We all must constantly look for ways to improve the way of working. People who don’t take initiative and continue the routine way of doing things will soon find themselves out of place, literally ! The best performers in any team can be spotted by the way they go about the initiative they take to approach a problem. These is a clear linkage between initiative and performance. In another blog, I will explore a model to measure initiative that was handed over to me by a senior HR professional while working at Philips, and I have used it for last ten years and found great value in using it.  

This illustration also brings out a rather unfortunate fact of life: that life as a pioneer is not always kind. Perhaps the challenges (and odds) in doing something for the first time are far greater than subsequently improving upon it (well, mostly, I think), but we tend to short memories about initial contributions. I don’t have a good answer for it, except that I feel this is little unfortunate. I guess the only thing one can takeaway from this is not to sit on one’s laurels far too long, but get going as soon as the party is over !