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I work in a medium-sized software company. My supervisor has always told me that I am good at executing tasks perfectly and delivering them on time, but that I don't take personal initiative to improve my work or skills. He goes on to say that I should think more about process improvement and not just finishing my task.... that I do nothing extra.

Now I want to be more valuable for my organization and achieve results more efficiently. What are some ways I could be more productive and perhaps more indispensable at work?

Where should I start? What are some things I can do that really help my company achieve its business objectives faster?

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This question is pretty vague (as to what you are asking), and will likely be closed, but I think I understand your motivation, and I think it deserves an answer:

I have often said that 15% of people will do good work no matter what is going on, 15% will do bad work no matter what is going on, and the remaining 70% will meet expectations.

I am reading between the lines, a little bit, but it seems you are in the 70%. Your employer expects good work, and you deliver. However, your manager likely believes you are personally capable of being in that top 15%, and is trying to encourage you to become that.

The simplest and most visible change you can make is to try to envision yourself in the role of the previous and next person in the workflow of whatever you're doing, and ask:

  1. What would I expect to happen / be produced from this work?
  2. How will I know when the process is successful / complete?
  3. How will I know if the process failed, and why?
  4. What additional information or functionality would help me that's not in the requirements?

Now this is important: You don't ever want to go off-script from your assignment, but thinking through these scenarios and bringing potential improvements to your manager will go a long way. You'll gain insight into your company's business and culture. You'll develop an understanding of business processes outside your own, and demonstrate that you're (potentially) leadership material.

A personal anecdote as an example: When I was just out of college, I was the engineer of a post-production facility. As such, most of the equipment purchases went through me. Most of the "small stuff" was entirely at my discretion. I had to get purchase orders approved, but they essentially "sailed through." I realized that accounting was likely having difficulty understanding the bills that were coming in, as they weren't engineers, and the descriptions didn't make sense. I started making copies of the purchase orders and packing tickets, stapling them together (It was the early 90's. It was all paper.), and turning them in as shipments arrived. Just that simple step saved them hours of headache every month. It was a small thing, but it went a long way.

As for being indispensable: Don't try. Being indispensable is a threat to the business, even if you don't ever try to leverage it. A good manager will rid themselves of "indispensable" employees. What you want to be is valuable. You want to show that you are worth much more to the company than your compensation and overhead cost them. You want to be a resource of not only skill, but of information and insight, as well. A truly valuable employee is one that's not only an excellent individual contributor, but helps their colleagues become stronger and more productive, as well.

I hope I hit the main point of what you're asking.

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    The "threat" of indispensable employees never before occurred to me, but you're completely right. What I'd like to add is that, on the count of job security, it can be helpful (at least temporarily). However, there are downsides (like when you can't go on vacation because you're integral to a product; true story). In my experience, it's neither all good for the employer nor the employee. – BalinKingOfMoria Jan 27 '16 at 0:30
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I think I have an idea as to what you're looking for. Don't just do your work, analyze your work. Be a student of the game as they say. Look at the whole picture not just the task at hand.

Your boss said:

that I don't take personal initiative to improve my work or skills.

This is where you have to go the extra mile. Look up some free courses on Coursera or Udemy that are relevant to your current (and possibly future) role and take them. Look for something that offers a certificate and show it to your supervisor.

He goes on to say that I should think more about process improvement and not just finishing my task.

Start at the beginning. Is there a version control system that you use to maintain your source code? If there is, does everyone follow the same procedure to access a file? If not, why not?

Is there documentation regarding the code you're writing? Is it a bug fix, feature request, in-house tool? Who generates those documents? Is there a process flow of information regarding the code? Instead of just taking an assignment and completing it, find out where your assignment fits in with the bigger picture of the project or application being developed.

What processes did/do you use to complete your tasks? Is there a more effective/efficient way to complete them?

  • +1 - Pretty specific to software development, but very usable and achievable options. – Wesley Long Apr 1 '15 at 18:56
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Ask your boss/manager to follow courses or training that would benefit your skills, like a workshop where you'll have to think about (and actually design) functional software designs. Attend a seminar/webinar where people will talk about work-related stuff you're interested in. When finished with your tasks, try to come up with features that would benefit the project and discuss it with your boss/manager. Read books on design patterns. Go to a congress.

Try anything that'll improve you and make you more valuable to the company, due do the sheer knowledge you posess. You will become more valuable to your company because you can do more.

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    you're kind of saying to throw more time that isn't doing work at it. I downvoted because I think these are bad / inexperienced suggestions. – user1084 Apr 1 '15 at 15:04
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Where should I start? What are some things I can do that really help my company achieve its business objectives faster?

The key is understanding the business objectives and how your tasks and skill set fit in with them. If in the course of your completing your assigned task of flipping the widgets you realize that it's of value to the company to have the widgets flipped and turned take the initiative to deliver a more valuable product or at least bring the suggestion to management. Skills wise it's the same thing, if lots of projects require widget turning but it's not a part of your repetoir then take the initiative to develop that skill.

Your situation is pretty common as most people have a hard time seeing process improvements from inside of the process. Try to really take a step back and figure out how your part fits into the whole.

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Bear in mind that this is performance evaluation season. The manager might be unable to come up with anything negative yet can't give a "5-star" review because that would create expectations for a raise. Alternatively, the OP might be competing against "star" performers and thus can't get as high a "score".

Nothing the manager says during the annual review should be a surprise. If it is, that means he hasn't been doing his job as a manager well. Has this shortcoming ever been brought up before during the year? If not, then it is likely a phony issue or your boss isn't providing effective feedback when it really counts (throughout the year).

Moreover, rhetoric about being required to go "above and beyond" needs to be put into the right perspective. In some orgs, there is literally no time to do anything but keep up with the pace (PMP's see to that, its in their job descriptions :-) ). In other orgs, initiative taken by people trying to do good things outside of expectations is ignored or punished. In some places, initiative and creativity is actually accepted as something good. Finally you have to think about whether or not going above and beyond is a risk you're willing to accept if things don't turn out well.

I happen to think that taking risks/initiatives and using personal judgement is worth it in all but the most hostile work environments, but this requires doing these things for their own value and not simply for the benefit of management to "judge" at annual review time.

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