Stretch Assignments

I may be looking at Ye Olden Days through rose colored glasses…

…but I can’t help but notice a difference in attitudes about work today compared to when I had my first jobs 25 years ago.

Back then, my colleagues and I would talk actively about whether our responsibilities would ever extend beyond making copies, sending faxes, and answering the phone. There was enough clerical work and hierarchy that “entry level” was truly menial. When a superior asked us to do anything that involved thinking, we jumped at it. Non-clerical work was a perk, and when it came our way, it was our job to find time to make it happen: do all our menial work, and do this too. These projects were a chance to demonstrate that we could do something other than stand by the fax machine, and each mini-assignment served as a testing-ground of whether we should be given another useful thing to do.

While there are countless flaws in that old system, the mindset around how to approach “stretch assignments” stands the test of time.

A great stretch assignment is a chance to do something new, challenging, and exciting. By definition it’s beyond our current levels of mastery, so it requires additional time on our part to learn and to get it right.

Often, though, I’m hearing just the opposite (including from job applicants): I can only take on that new thing if there’s a 1-for-1 trade of getting rid of this existing thing.

I don’t think it works that way, at least not in environments that are moving fast and trying to grow: the organization only grows its reach, its scale, and its revenues profits and impact, if the things that make up that organization—software, systems, processes and people—can stretch and grow.

Whether it’s a one-off project or an expansion of our role, the best way to take on stretch assignments is, literally, to stretch: our mental capacity, our willingness to be uncomfortable, the number of hours we put in to make the “stretch” possible on top of everything else that’s on our plate. That means finding time around the edges, whether early in the morning, late in the evening or on a weekend, to get that job done. Hopefully the opportunity and learning are more than worth the trade.

(Better yet, in the process of adjusting to this fuller plate, we often discover a bunch of non-essential things that we were spending time on that don’t require nearly as much polishing).

The reality is, the path to leverage in our job requires us to constantly shift, adjusting to new opportunities and new sets of responsibilities.

Learning the skill of sprinting, and getting adept at shifting and stretching time, is the way that we discover what our maximum output really is. It’s also how we discover where it is that we really shine.

One thought on “Stretch Assignments

  1. Yes… but. I agree that I lament the new work idea that people cannot stretch and apply themselves. Nor do they even seem able to swap tasks 1 for 1, “nope, nope, nope…I cannot learn or do anything new.” Like you, when I entered the workforce you did what you were asked to do, and you learned how to fit it all in, and get it done, and learn something about your job and yourself in the process.

    However, now after more than 40 years of this “work first” ethic in which I have stretched so thin I am invisible, I have discovered that if you will continue to do that, you will find yourself doing 6 or 7 people’s full time jobs for one full time pay. You will be expected and asked to continuously add, add, add tasks to your plate until you are frazzled and worn and not able to ship good work for the exhaustion. And then, when you give someone new your resume full of an astonishing panoply of skills you will be told by the 12-year-old to whom you are handing it that, “gosh, you have a lot of stuff on here and maybe you should just put the things you are really good at.” When you explain to her that you are a master of all of these skills and have had *just this one job*, the latest of many, since she was in 6th grade, and ask her to imagine how many things she has learned since 6th grade, you will be met with a blank stare.

    I think there must be a balance. Today’s workers have watched their parents and grandparents literally work themselves to death or to a retirement where they have no idea what to do with themselves without work. I actually applaud their ability to say, “No.” to ridiculous requests that they stretch to just one more assignment. I would never advocate that you stop learning new things, taking on new challenges, or helping your company grow and scale. There needs, however, to be balance, and sacrificing that balance at the cost of your health and sanity is no longer a smart or acceptable way to work.

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