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(Note: there are similar questions, though this is distinct in as far as a boss is involved and the task is unknown to me)

My boss recently assigned me Project X. Although I am vaguely familiar with what it is about, I have never actually worked on any project like that. It is not part of my current job description, but it is likely something that might get me a promotion - and it is something I am interested in!

My boss, who I otherwise have a good relationship with, has been acting very differently since he assigned this to me. Normally a great mentor, he now gives me extremely vague and abstract goals, and when I ask for details on the process, he keeps repeating the goals and/or eschews the question.

My guess is that he's testing me, or he believes I should be able to handle it by myself. Either way, I barely understand the process, and think I won't do unless I receive extensive training in the subject.

What do I do?

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    Do you know if there are others already working on that project? If so, your first step is to find out what they've done so far. If not, your first step is to educate yourself on what the requirements are (including what the users/customers need it to do), what's been done in the past, whether anyone else in the company has explored this and what their conclusions were, and so on. Once you understand the requirements, and understand what you have to work with, you'll have a better sense of what else you have to learn/find/create to connect the two. – keshlam Jul 2 '14 at 2:23
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    @keshlam, thank you. The point is this is entirely new within my department. There are experts on the subject in other departments, but the process will not be the same. The requirements are quite clear - just how to meet them is absolutely not. – SamanthaFleur Jul 2 '14 at 5:48
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My boss recently assigned me Project X. Although I am vaguely familiar with what it is about, I have never actually worked on any project like that...

My boss, whom I otherwise have a good relation with, has been acting very differently since he assigned this to me. Normally a great mentor, he now gives me extremely vague and abstract goals, and when I ask for details on the process, he keeps repeating the goals and/or eschews the question.

This is not neccessarily a bad thing. In fact, your boss may be consciously giving you an opportunity to take ownership and show initiative.

Here's what you should do:

  1. Document your assignment to the best of your ability. Try to uncover all assumptions and unknowns. Estimate the amount of work which must be done.
  2. Tell your boss that you will email him a status report daily which will detail your progress on the assignment. These emails should be brief, to the point, and preferably in bullet-point form for easy reading. [The first of these emails should include your initial understanding/interpretation of the assignment, as captured by Step #1.]
  3. Each day, make a conscious effort to eliminate unknowns and reduce assumptions. To some extent, this should happen as a natural byproduct of your efforts to complete the assignment.
  4. Try not to get blocked. Seek help if you cannot find the answer to a question. Keep taking steps that will move you closer to completion. Always have an idea about how much work is left. And always keep your boss updated on your progress.
  • Thanks Jim G. The issue is that everything is "unknown" so far. I am not saying I am 100% ignorant on the topic, but I have 0 experience in it. I think the best analogy here is: imagine you know nothing about programming, but are good at Excel. Now your boss asks you to create an Excel VBA program to automate your own day-to-day work. You read tutorials, online courses, etc. but there's always something in the code that doesn't function as expected. Essentially, I think I'd first have to fully study VBA programming and then figure out how to apply it to my project. Isn't that sensible? – SamanthaFleur Jul 2 '14 at 6:03
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    @SamanthaFleur - no, you don't have to fully study VBA programming. Often such problems can be solved by googling the error messages - you are likely to find a solution on some forum :) I think your boss is vague because the problem is new to him too and he is not sure how to deal with it. It seems that you have to do some research. – greenfingers Jul 2 '14 at 8:57
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This is where you need to use initiative. Likely your boss has no easy answers either.

You say in a comment that other departments have done something using this approach that is not directly applicable. I would set up an appointment to talk to the people who did those projects and find out what types of problems they had and what they learned that you can apply to your own design. For instnce they may tell you that approach A (the one you were considering) won't work becasue of security policies on your network. They got around the problem by using approach d which you had not even run into as an idea yet. So by finding out the types of problems they had to solve when doing thier implementations, you may be able to avoid making some of the same mistakes. If you can, get tehm to walk you through their project (code included if this si a programming type project) so you can understnad what they did. The more you understnd about what they did, the easier it is going to be figure out how to approach your differnt problem.

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Could be your boss has no clue about this project either and is trying to hide ignorance/inexperience by offloading the job onto you.

If you are receiving no answers or support then publicise your confusion as widely as possible. This may then "embarrass" the boss into supporting or helping you.

  • While it's certainly possible OP's boss is being vague because they don't know anything themselves, engineering public embarassment doesn't sound like a career advancing move. – Llewellyn Mar 25 '17 at 19:02
  • I'm with you on he first paragraph, but that second one is a candidate for the Bad Idea Hall of Fame. – Ernest Friedman-Hill Mar 26 '17 at 14:20

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