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I'm in Week 2 of a new job at a new company, and my boss is asking that I (and another team member who's been with the company for a year) assemble documentation outlining the company's many disparate systems. This would require doing some investigation and reaching out to relevant Points of Contact (POCs).

The problem is, I don't know the first place to start with who to ask or even the right questions to ask. I barely know the team and who's responsible for what. I don't even have access to the company network yet. The other team member assigned to this would be fishing in the dark for the proper POCs as well, but he does have the advantage of knowing the team.

I want to help, but I don't think I'm the right person for this task. What is the best way to communicate this to my boss?

  • 7
    What do you mean by POC? I only know 2 meanings (Person of Colour or Proof of Concept) but none of them seem to apply there – BriseFlots Jan 24 at 8:10
  • 8
    @BriseFlots I'm guessing Point of Contact? Could be clearer though... – Graham Jan 24 at 8:43
  • Isn't the first person to contact the other person who's been assigned to work on this with you?? I would be scheduling a meeting with them asap to discuss your plan of attack... – user3067860 Jan 24 at 15:04
  • 18
    Don't you think your boss assigned this task to you so you can get a a detailed view of the company systems? – Cris Jan 24 at 19:36

10 Answers 10

50

How to communicate that I don't think I'm the right person for a task?

There is no such thing. You are not the right person yet. Your concern now should be how to transform yourself into the right person. Basically, you need information.

For any information you need, there is a source. Knowledge about that source is again information - if you don't even know where to get information, then you need to inform yourself about that first. And the ultimate source of all is, at the end of the day, your boss (or in other words, your "stakeholder").

So, what you should do:

  • Gather as much info as you can and make a plan on how to proceed.
  • Try to guess or fill in open spots as best as you can; decide little things if you think you won't do much harm in your non-knowing state.
  • Lay out that plan (in very succinct words) to your boss, together with the missing pieces; in your particular case, you need a Point-of-Contact, which your boss should provide. For the bits where you decided something, make it plain that you will proceed with those decisions unless you get a veto from the stakeholder. This makes it easy for them to simply say "ok" without much effort.
  • Generally, be very concise when communicating with your boss - he very likely is busy, and is probably not your coach. Also, he is probably in a different context when he gets your message, so be direct and unambiguous. Don't get on his nerves, don't ask him to babysit you. But be sure to know that a good boss will not be angry if you demonstrate that you understand what you're supposed to do, and are missing essential info.
  • Priority #1 is definitely to get a new "primary source of information" for your task who is not your boss. Some companies have the role of a "coach" or "mentor" for new personell, which can be just anybody - not necessarily your line manager.
  • Get into the rhythm of keeping your boss (or whatever stakeholder you will have in the future) up-to-date with the status of your work, but keep it short and sweet, optimally color-coded (green/yellow/red). Say, a weekly status update, which can be a two-liner if there is nothing much of substance.

This advice is for when you are basically OK to do the task, and just don't know how to. If your boss wants you to do something which you absolutely refuse to do (i.e., move furniture although you're a software developer), then this can apply as well (for example this could mean that you decide that you will handle the furniture by proxy - i.e., by buying a contractor who does it, with you supervising, and your boss/the company paying). A wholy different issue arises if you consistently do stuff that's not related to your personal goals, all the time. Then it's time for you to have a nice chat with your boss about your development, but also to check if it's time to look for a new job.

Additions due to the comments: this approach also works with impossible tasks. If you get a deadline that you know cannot make, or say you need to make investments where you don't have enough budget - it's time to talk with the stakeholder, and find a working solution. But don't make it about you being the wrong person, but about solving the actual problem. Same if you know of someone else who is actually better suited => feel free to talk with them, or your stakeholder, but just don't say flat out "no" without giving an alternative.

  • "Gather as much info as you can and make a plan on how to proceed." Also, find a POC and bounce off of them daily to figure out what info you need to gather. – Mooing Duck Jan 24 at 22:11
  • I think a huge exception to this is when you've been given a deadline you know that you can't meet, but suspect someone else might be able to. In that case, I would hardly consider it professional to fall on your sword and fail without at least pointing out that you're going to be slower than the other person. – Iron Gremlin Jan 24 at 23:43
  • @IronGremlin, thanks, I've added that to the answer. – AnoE Jan 25 at 8:38
212

This sounds like one of those tasks that get you acquainted with the team, get you familiar with the processes, and spurs IT to give you access to the relevant network resources.

They expect you to take a long time doing this, and to be very disruptive to other team members with your questions while you're doing it. So take this as an opportunity to learn.

Don't communicate to your boss that you can't or won't do this. Ask your boss for advice on how to start. Ask if anyone can be your mentor in this.

  • 29
    This exactly. I was shocked to even see this as a legitimate question. If I was the boss I would certainly see saying that "I'm not the right person for this task" as "I'm not the right person for this job." The first reaction to be overwhelmed is pretty natural, but one should have the self restraint to evaluate it thoroughly before saying they can't do it. Alas, the instant gratification culture of today's world. – ldog Jan 24 at 10:50
  • @ldog, while I have always been very entrepreneurial and taken almost all random or not-so-random chances (and am happy for it, in hindsight), I definitely had phases where I was stuck in a mental loop and almost convinced myself and people around me that I was not the right person for whatever task at hand. I got out of that, thankfully. More importantly, I know a lot of people who are fully immersed in the thought that there are lots of not-fitting tasks for them. It seems pretty bog-standard to me that this happens, and separates people into quite distinct categories. – AnoE Jan 24 at 18:59
87

I don't think I'm the right person for this task. What is the best way to communicate this to my boss?

You don't. This is exactly the kind of task for a new staff member. It is how you will learn what the company does, who does what, who knows what, etc.

Go to your boss, and say, "this is a great opportunity to learn about the place, where do I start and who do I bother first?"

17

IMHO, all the questions mentioned by you need to asked from manager / stakeholders and are part of the assignment.

Given your tenure in the company, this assignment:

  1. Will allow you to learn the ins and out of your new workplace
  2. Give the company fresh set of eyes on issues at hand

In short, it is too early to say that you are unable to perform the task.

it is all in the motivation and effort

12

It sounds to me like your boss wants you to show him or her that even if you don't know something, you are able to be resourceful and find the information.

If you truly don't think you can accomplish the task at all I might follow these steps:

  • Ask for a one on one meeting with your boss in a private setting. I think a face to face interaction is better then e-mail because it facilitates discussion and compromise between you and your superior rather then an e-mail which may show your boss that you don't want to work hard, instead of the truth which is you aren't confident in your junior position.

  • Have pre-outlined the reasons that you think this isn't the task for you and have a suggestion (it is always best to present a problem with a potential solution, it shows people that you can work hard rather then just being able to find excuses). In this case suggestions could be asking for assistance in where to find the information, asking for introductions to people who can turn into resources for the project, etc.

  • Ask why you were chosen, and be open to whatever answer you may get from this question. There may be a rational reason why a new person such as yourself has been tasked with a seemingly impossible task (one that comes to mind is this is a great way for you to become very familiar with the company, the task forces you to do digging and meet people within the company)

I would strongly suggest that you do attempt to complete the task to the best of your abilities. This isn't a solo mission, you have a team member who you can lean on and discuss your options with. It may be possible that you and your team member can come together and produce the information that your boss is looking for.

And don't forget, any company worth working for isn't going to let you sink, you should be able to ask for assistance (within reason) and get it.

7

In addition to the excellent advice in multiple other answers (which are worth reading, but which I won't try to repeat), I'd like to throw some additional perspective in your direction, which might also answer some more of the questions you asked.

Scope your problem.

I don't know the first place to start with who to ask or even the right questions to ask.

The right questions to ask are the ones that will provide you with the answers that you need to get your job done.

However, it sounds like you only have a very loose idea of what this job is. "Document." Okay. But what are the requirements? What deadlines must be met? What level of "documentation" is sufficient, so that you can determine when something is sufficiently documented, so that this task can be declared done? *

Never significantly start your efforts a major project, especially one that people will be expecting to have significant benefits from, and especially one that will have some notable costs (like interrupting other staff members), until you have some of the basic boundaries determined. Sometimes ill-defined projects don't have clear boundaries, but even in those cases, a guideline like "Make Tom happy" will at least give you a place to start (even if it is a very vague place, such as simply knowing that Tom will be the person to ask).

This is a great case of being given a task where you don't have enough information, and it isn't going to look bad on you because there was no way for you to have this information (because, until recently, you weren't a part of the company). Your ignorance will not look like incompetence. On the contrary, by demonstrating your astute awareness that you don't have enough information, you are actually showing competence. And hopefully your questions will give you answers so that you can identify some specific needs that you can then start to figure out.

  • Note: documentation tasks of changing systems might never be done. Still, you can potentially complete a specific task, such as completing an entire pass and knowing how long the documentation is predicted to remain relevant before another major company-wide pass is likely to be needed to completely overhaul the results of the current documentation work.

Note 2: While some other answers point out that this can be a great task that caring management can assign a new person, this easily could be a case of a decision maker deciding, "I don't know what to have this new person do, so let's just assign them the documentation project, because that's unlikely to irritate customers or cause any other problems. In either scenario, this is a task that will produce some results that a competent manager may review closely. Also, your questions may result in some people needing to be accountable, so that could cause some friction which may be of some interest to management. Do expect a very realistic possibility that you may be significantly judged on this project.

If you shine, this project could turn out to be a great opportunity to look invaluable (in the positive sense of the word). Put forth some good effort.

Again, if you haven't yet, I do recommend reading other answers because this question has led to some excellent responses by other people too.

2

I wholeheartedly agree with the advice given in the other answers, in that you should not be trying to avoid this task (it basically propels you into the position of being better informed than anyone else, and getting to know all the right people, in a fraction of the time it would take anyone else, you should be plotting against everyone on your floor to be landed with that task!!!)

However, no one seems to have answered the question, which is how to communicate to your boss that you are not the right person for the task, which in many situations might be the right thing to do, and people might come here looking for an answer (e.g it is a dead end task, doesn't align with where you want to end up, or taking it on stops you from being handed a better task)

When you find yourself in such scenarios (i.e. you want your boss to take a different course of action) don't tell your boss directly - instead do things which will him/her come round to your view by themselves.

To do that, you first need to know what your boss actually wants. Why do they want that task done, why is it being lumped on you, what is it your boss doesn't want, what other things do they want?

Secondly, you need to use lateral thinking, here are some examples:

  1. Find another task which you are more urgently needed for, perhaps roping in help from a different department, or discovering a problem which only you can solve (I've done this many times myself).
  2. Play dumb and do the task diligently but in a way which makes your boss reconsider (very risky strategy in most work places, though I hear that in government it's a reliable tactic, but we're just encouraging lateral thinking here)
  3. Ask for so much help from someone that it makes more sense to simply offload the task onto them (an example of point 2, and also risky)
  4. Do the task, but make your other strengths known too, and it could well be that something pops up and you get pulled onto another task which better uses your skills.

But do think about the long term consequences of what you do, the best approach is to become so indispensable that your boss will think twice before assigning you to a task which displeases you. Being indispensable comes down to competence yes, but mostly to specific knowledge: the product, the market, the industry, the workings of the company, who to speak to etc...

The more you focus on building that up, the less of these difficult situations you will end up finding yourself in, but the flip side is that you need to know how to navigate these situations to land yourself opportunities which allow you to build that up, opportunities like being asked to:

assemble documentation outlining the company's many disparate systems

Some good books on all this: Linchpin (Seth Godin), 48 Laws of Power (Robert Greene), What They Don't Teach You At Harvard Business School (Mark H. McCormack )

2

The most impressive new team members I've seen in my career are the ones who just get right in there and bulldog their way through to figure out how things work. They ask lots of questions. Sometimes they are really thoughtful questions. Sometimes they are really obvious ones. Sometimes it seems like people get annoyed. But at the end of the day these types of people get in there and take that information they need to do their jobs. They seem completely comfortable not knowing what the heck is going on.

The first time I saw this happen I thought "Geez, the new guy is a real try hard. Relax, buddy you don't need to figure everything out your first week". But that quickly faded into "Geez, the new guy knows more about this place after a week than I do after 6 months!". I realized quickly that by getting right in there and asking all these questions they were really getting to know the place. Their ignorance gave way to knowledge and confidence. They make it clear when they don't know something and they own it. They figure out where to look or who to ask and then they know. These people always seem like they have their stuff together and they never seem stressed about some thing they think they should know and don't.

I try to be more and more like this type of person on every new team I find myself on. Being confident in what you know is good. Being confident in what you don't is even better and much less stressful. But you need to capitalize on it when you are new because that is really the only time you could confidently bug people with "basic" information with almost no repercussions.

So I'd flip this around and forget about not being the guy for the job. Get right in there and bulldog your way through this. It could pay dividends at that company that you can only imagine. And when those colleagues leave that job for other companies, taking promotions and all that, you may find opportunities falling into your lap that you could only dream about now. I actually can't stress this last part enough. Good luck!

1

Typically:

Normal conversation: "Someone else needs to do that"

Business Jargon: "I don't know anything about that. [Other person] typically handles [something relating to what you're trying to get out of]"

That's typically how I've seen it. When your boss wants you to do it anyway they'll probably tell you that you need to learn or explain why it needs to be you.

In your situation it sounds like no one else is doing this. I'd suggest, "I don't know where anything's at or who anyone is" and just going from there. Don't over explain things to your boss. Just say enough to get the main issues across. I'm pretty sure you'll have to do this task anyway.

1

Your boss may have chosen this task as EXACTLY the right task to help you get integrated and up-to-speed efficiently. Indeed, any task where I've needed to talk to experts outside my realm, or document stuff that's not yet documented, have been excellent learning experiences. Like someone above said, just start by asking either your boss, or an office mate or team member, who exactly you might talk to to learn about X. Contrary to your first instinct (wrong person for the task), this is exactly the RIGHT TASK for a new hire.

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