Fast Company

Project: You

Sure, most work today is project work. But which projects are worth working on? And how does a series of projects become a career?

For Microsoft's Adam Rauch, 31, it was a choice between building on a strength and starting something new. He joined Microsoft as the first program manager for Visual Basic, a software tool now used by 3 million programmers around the world. He led the product team through the launch and a major revision. He became a rising star -- so much so that he tutored Bill Gates on the intricacies of the product's code. Then it was time for yet another revision. Rauch decided to let work start without him. He jumped to a new project within the company.

"Visual Basic had created an industry," he says. "I like being able to say, 'I was there at the beginning.' Then I asked myself, Can I do it again? Was I just along for the ride, or was I instrumental in creating it? I wanted a new challenge."

For Universal Creative's Tawny Halbert, 25, it was a choice between work that was glamorous and work that she enjoyed. She had spent eight months on the project team that created Dante's Peak, a high-profile attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood Theme Park. Now it was time to settle on her next assignment. Would she help build the highly anticipated Terminator 2 exhibit -- or a simple buffet restaurant within the park? She chose the restaurant, largely because the project would be completed in one year, rather than the three it would take to create T2.

"I like shorter projects," Halbert says. "Being out on the site and dealing with people is more rewarding than sitting in my cubicle doing paperwork. Plus, shorter projects leave you open to more opportunities. It's hard to be on a three-year project and watch all these other opportunities pass you by."

For Hewlett-Packard's Michael Cyr, 42, it was a choice between staying on a well-defined career path and paving a road of his own. Cyr had spent 18 years at HP as a manufacturing technician with clear assignments and responsibilities. Today he is the ultimate internal freelancer, working on a handful of self-designed projects that range from plant-safety initiatives to intranet design.

"I had maxed out on technical things," he says. "So I looked at myself, looked around the company, and started doing what I wanted to do. Sometimes I think, What have I gotten myself into? But I'm inspired. I just need to manage my projects so I don't burn out."

Decisions, decisions. Not so long ago, people like Adam Rauch, Tawny Halbert, and Michael Cyr had to make one big career choice: which company to join. Then they would start climbing a well-defined ladder of promotions until they retired. Those days are gone for good. How many people can stick with one company for their entire career? How many would want to, even if they could? And among the few who do, how many follow a recognizable progression of jobs and titles? Almost all work today is project work. Your success inside a company -- and the long-term course of your career -- depend on the value of the projects you work on.

"In the past, career management meant, Get the org chart and plot a line as far up as possible," says leadership guru and Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter, author of The New Rules: Eight Business Breakthroughs to Career Success in the 21st Century (Free Press, 1997). "That's not the name of the game anymore. You need to figure out what skills will be relevant in the future and to map out projects to develop those skills."

Susan Campbell, a change consultant based in Sebastopol, California and the author of From Chaos to Confidence: Survival Strategies for the New Workplace (Simon & Schuster, 1995), could not agree more. "The workplace of the future is going to be organized according to jobs that need doing, and that means a project-oriented workplace," she argues. "Even if you never show it to anybody, open a file called My Ongoing, Ever-Expanding Resume of Projects I've Done. There will be a time when you need it."

Reasonable propositions. But they raise some obvious questions: How do you figure out which projects you should join? Where and when do you look for your next project? How do you document the results of your work? Answering these and other questions is a project in and of itself. Fast Company offers this do-it-yourself project manual to answer the six most important questions about your most important project -- you.

Which Projects Are Best for Me?

Here's a simple question that remarkably few people can answer: If you could work on any project in your company, which would it be? There's no right answer, of course. But finding projects that are right for you means thinking hard about four related questions: How much can I learn? How much can I contribute? How important is the project? Who is the leader?

Most career experts put a premium on learning. That's what drove Karen Shorr, a senior project coordinator for Universal Creative, to work on Totally Nickelodeon, a new show at Universal Studios Hollywood that debuted this past Easter. "I wanted to be on that project because I'd never done a show before," says Shorr, 33, who previously had worked on restaurants and rides. "I wanted to learn what it was like to bring a show to the park. That's how I pick projects. I ask, Is there something I will learn from it?"

Of course, if you're always learning, you're seldom leading -- that is, demonstrating the expertise you already have. Isn't someone like Shorr better off sticking with restaurants and rides so she can deliver on what she's already learned? "It's a balancing act," says Harvard's Kotter. "If a project has unbelievable visibility, you'd better make sure that you're contributing, not just learning. But if the stakes aren't that high, then join it for the learning opportunity. Your odds of getting into trouble are lower."

Some people won't make that tradeoff. HP's Cyr has a simple rule about choosing low-stakes projects -- he doesn't. For example, one of his current projects involves designing measurement systems to track HP's safety performance. The project isn't glamorous, but it has a high profile. Cyr decided to work on safety after a senior HP executive gave a speech about its importance to the company.

"I choose projects I get excited about," Cyr says. "It's an emotional response. And part of what excites me is knowing that a project matters. When top management recognizes what you're working on, you get validation and support."

How Do I Hear About Hot Projects?

It's obvious: you can't join great project teams if you don't know about them. But how do you find out about the right projects at the right time -- before they're fully staffed by other people in the company? The answer is no less obvious: listen to and network with the right people. Which doesn't mean only those high on the corporate ladder. In workplaces filled with decentralized projects, company peers and industry colleagues are often better sources of project intelligence than your boss.

Unless, of course, your boss is Bill Gates. Back in 1992, after he left the Visual Basic team, Adam Rauch joined a Microsoft project that focused on consumer electronics. Then Gates gave a speech on the rise of the Internet and Microsoft's commitment to it. That was all that Rauch needed to hear. He started comparing notes with his pals from the old days, learned about the company's growing interest in data-networking, and settled on his next project: leading the team charged with launching NetMeeting, a software package designed to support video-, audio-, and data-conferencing over the Internet. Rauch began work on NetMeeting in December 1994. Recently, Microsoft shipped the second version of the product.

"I've tried to develop a network of people throughout the company -- people I know, associate with, stay friends with," he says. "The nice thing about Visual Basic is that as Microsoft has gotten bigger, the people I've worked with have been dispersed throughout the company. I can ask them, 'What have you heard about? What's new? What's cool?' I saw NetMeeting as that kind of opportunity. It was a brand new thing, a blank slate."

Hewlett-Packard's Lauren Martin takes her approach to personal networking one step further than Rauch does -- beyond the borders of the company. Martin, 35, joined HP in 1984 as an accounting clerk. Today she runs a career self-reliance program for the company. How does Martin learn about the projects she wants to work on?

"Once or twice a month, I have lunch with an industry peer," she says. "I make it a point to strike up relationships with people who do the kind of business I do or am interested in. In the past, people focused on their direct relationship with their manager. In a project environment, people need strong, healthy relationships with their peers." That's just as true of peers inside the company as of those outside, Martin emphasizes: "I always assume that the people working with me on a project may someday manage me. Or that I may manage them. So I treat people with that in mind. I always cultivate a social relationship -- `Let's have lunch and talk.'"

Of course, even the most aggressive networking can only help you find out about projects that other people have created. Sometimes the best projects are those you create yourself. "Most of us like to believe that the boss and our colleagues are thinking of us," says William Morin, chairman of WJM Associates, a New York-based executive development firm, and author of Silent Sabotage (Amacom,1995). "But that's usually quite far from the truth. You need to figure out where the company is going and what it's going to need. The world recognizes people who come up with answers on their own and puts those answers into practice."

Scott Dever, 36, sees the wisdom of Morin's point. As director of marketing promotions for SmithKline Beecham, the global pharmaceutical giant based in Philadelphia, he's always on the lookout for new ways to expand the market for the company's vaccines and antibiotics. His approach: gather a few of his colleagues to brainstorm ideas; then seek out resources to turn those ideas into full-fledged projects.

"The most valuable projects are those initiated at the grassroots level," he argues. "Lots of people can take someone else's idea and make it happen. But if you're tuned in enough to what's going to make your company successful into the next century, you can contribute on a totally different level."

How Many Projects Are Too Many?

One of the most serious hazards of the project economy is overload: you're constantly tempted to take on more projects than you can handle. Some companies solve that problem for you. At both Microsoft and Universal Creative, people are limited to one major project at a time. But in most companies, people make their own rules.

HP's Martin estimates that she's worked on more than 25 projects in the last decade. But she has spaced out her projects, abiding by one hard-and-fast rule: she'll manage only one big project or two medium-sized projects at a time. She expects the same of those on her team: "If people tell you they have 10% of their time for your project, they have no time for your project."

SmithKline's Dever is more flexible. He's now involved in five projects -- although he never forgets about the different role he plays in each. He's "leading" one project, "sponsoring" another, and "advising" three more. "It's not an all-or-nothing decision," he says. "You can be involved without being immersed. If I'm leading a project, I'm at every meeting, really pushing. It gets pretty intense. But when I advise a project, I'm like a consultant: 'Did you think about . . .?'"

When Do I Start Looking for My Next Project?

This one's easy: you should always be on the lookout for your next project. That's not a sign of distraction or disloyalty; it's a mark of realism and ambition. Indeed, perhaps the most relevant question is not whether to seek new opportunities but how to deal with the opportunities you find -- especially when you're in the middle of working on another project. Does it ever make sense to change horses in midstream?

Harvard's Kotter says yes -- if you can make a compelling case for a switch. "You always want to be alert," he says, "because there's always a chance that you can slide out of one project and into another. It may make more sense for the company and for you. The cycle times on most projects are short enough that the practical answer is, Be looking for new projects all the time."

HP's Martin disagrees. Sure, she's always on the lookout for her next project. But she would almost never leave a project before it's completed: "You can kill a project, you can launch a project, but don't leave a project in the middle unless you know that the person you're handing it over to is more capable than you are." Martin says this policy is more than good manners -- it's smart career management.

"A project is about packaging something from start to finish," she says. "If you don't complete what you set out to do, then what exactly do you write on your resume -- `I started a project, hung out for a while, and left'? I would really encourage people not to leave projects half-finished."

Microsoft's Adam Rauch splits the difference between Kotter and Martin. He's willing to leave a product line midway through its long-term evolution, but only after a new version of the product has hit the market. "It's important to see a product through until it's delivered," he argues. "But after a couple of versions, I think you should let someone else take over. Program managers will never encourage you to leave. They want to keep you on board, keep you focused. But if you argue that you're stagnating, that it's time for something new, there aren't many roadblocks to change."

Indeed, Rauch says he's developed a simple internal clock that tells him when to switch product categories: every three years. Any longer, he worries, and he'd lose his creative zeal; any shorter, and he'd have little to show for his efforts.

How Do I Document My Success?

These days, switching projects often means switching project leaders -- which raises lots of tough questions about getting the recognition (and developing the reputation) you deserve. Sure, your previous project leaders know you do great work. But how do you know whether your track record has traveled along with you to your new project? And what if your new teammates don't know what you have done in the past -- and can do with them in the future? How do you show them your stuff without showing off? How do you assert yourself without seeming too, well, assertive?

"It's all about visibility," says change consultant Susan Campbell. "You don't want to play politics -- people see through that -- but you do want to be viewed as a person who likes to do a great job."

Campbell and her colleagues agree that the first step to greater visibility is greater clarity. The way to develop a reputation as a success is to make sure that people in the organization agree that your project was a success. And that means arriving at a clear definition of achievement -- before your project starts.

"Every project needs measurable outcomes," says HP's Lauren Martin. "You need a strategy at the beginning of your project to articulate and measure your results at the end. And you should be specific. If there's a way to measure how your project increased productivity, then you should measure it. Find ways to articulate how your project created value for the organization. Remember, people pay attention to metrics."

The second step is to find ways to share these results with the people in the organization who matter. Microsoft's Adam Rauch had it easy (or hard, depending on your point of view). After all, he tutored Bill Gates in Visual Basic soon after the product was released. Now that's visibility. ("It was pretty important," Rauch says modestly.) But all this interaction with the CEO didn't happen by accident. Although he's not a big believer in formal paper trails, Rauch carefully documents his progress every step of the way. "That's my job," he says. "The people who are watching -- the executives -- see that. You don't have to be political: 'I did this, I did that, I'm so great.' But you do have to communicate your team's goals and milestones, its missions and priorities, to the right people."

HP's Cyr is emphatic: he does believe in paper trails -- or at least in their intranet equivalent. After all, many of Cyr's projects are solo efforts. So he tends to worry that if he doesn't spread the word, it won't get out at all. "That's why I use my computer for all it's worth," he explains. "I create spreadsheets, letters, directories -- all kinds of documents and reports. They let people see the status of all my projects."

Author and consultant Kevin Cashman, the founder and president of LeaderSource, a consulting firm based in Minneapolis, likes Cyr's approach. He also urges people to go beyond it. "If you market what you've done, it can seem like self-promotion," he says. "But if you market what you can do, it feels more like a service." That's why Cashman recommends a two-step regimen: document your achievements as they happen, and record the skills you're developing on a regular basis.

Susan Campbell agrees. "You should create a new resume every month," she argues. "And I don't mean just writing up the plain-vanilla basics: where you went to school, what job titles you've had. I mean writing down what matters: the problems you've solved, how much money you've saved the company, the real results you've achieved. It's not something for you to send to prospective employers. But if you keep all your accomplishments fresh in your mind, it will be easier to sell yourself in conversations."

Where Are All These Projects Taking Me?

We said it at the outset: the traditional career path has disappeared. But what's taking its place? Are we on the road to nowhere? Or can you create direction from a series of projects?

Some people don't think so. "I don't have a seven-year plan in mind," says Microsoft's Rauch. "I just want to work on cool technology with great people."

That's a common attitude among young businesspeople, says Cashman, and it's fine as far as it goes. But he worries that it doesn't go far enough. "Most people map out their career by circumstance rather than by plan, and then label those circumstances their resume. Obviously, you need to react to circumstances. But you also need to step back and establish a core purpose."

The pursuit of core purpose, experts say, helps give shape to an often-confusing journey. Scott Dever says his core purpose at SmithKline Beecham is to be great at leading teams. An executive coach recently advised him to embrace a functional specialty -- but he believes that team-building skills are a more permanent source of value: "The ability to pull a team together is a skill whose value will endure."

Susan Campbell would say that team-building is Dever's "essential vocation" -- the defining capability that he brings to every project he works on. From her perspective, finding career consistency is a function less of what you do than of how you approach it. "Your essential vocation goes much deeper than your job title," she says. "It's what you're doing, no matter what else you're doing. Some people are advocates -- they always speak for the underdog. Others are entertainers -- they always make people laugh, and keep work light and fun. My essential vocation is to teach. Whether I'm consulting, speaking at a conference or talking with my niece, I'm always teaching. My project might change. My workplace might change. But trying to be a better teacher -- that doesn't change."

Eric Matson ematson@nwu.edu , a former member of the Fast Company editorial staff, recently began a new project -- business school.

Add New Comment

0 Comments