Looking to grow in your career? Then a stretch assignment, or a special project at could be the way to go.
Last week I wrote, “Take Control of Your Career, or Your Career Will Take Control of You.” This post is the follow-up (Please read Take Control of Your Career because it will add context to this post). You’ve gotten permission to work on your stretch assignment to help you grow in your career, so where do you begin? The first place is to create a project plan, outlining everything you need to do to complete the project.
Make sure that you include milestones to help you track your progress. I’m not a project management expert, so this post is going to focus on data gathering – getting the information you need to solve the problem that can make your career.
People to Get Information from & Conducting the Interview for Your Stretch Assignment
I mentioned previously that one of the ways to get information is to talk to industry analysts, professors, influencers, subject matter experts, journalists and so on. Your aim is to gather new information and insights, find out what’s been done before, so you do not reinvent the wheel. You are trying to understand the problem and what’s required to solve it.
Sarah Arrow, who created the 30-Day Blogging Challenge, wrote the post, “Expert Sources: Creating stronger, more effective content,” which includes an impressive list of where to find experts. People on that list will augment the list of people you already would like to talk to. You work in the field, so you know who the top experts are. This is an important project that can make or break your career, so you must go the extra mile. The people who go the extra mile are the ones that usually win big.
Take the time to formulate the questions that you want to ask them. You want specific answers, so make sure that you are asking the kinds of questions that will give you the answers you seek. Make sure that most of the questions are open-ended – this prevents the interviewees from giving you one word or yes-no answers. Always ask for referrals, so you get the details of other experts to speak to. This gives you access to experts that are way outside your circle, who will likely give you fresh information.
Also find out if the interviewees know of others, who are working to solve the problem(s) you plan to solve. This may be an opportunity for you to collaborate. Don’t forget to ask for recommended books that will give you a greater understanding and insight into the problem you are trying to solve. Or even help to direct your path, or even build a strong foundational knowledge base. This is an exciting journey for you.
Email interviews work very well, and many experts prefer them because they can answer the questions on their own time – whenever they have a free moment.
If you conduct face-to-face, phone or video interviews, make sure that you have a way to record the interview. Although you are taking notes yourself, your primary concern is paying close attention to what’s being said, so that you can ask follow up questions. Send the questions ahead of the interviews, so experts know what you plan to ask.
After each interview, jot down the five big ideas, while the interview is still fresh in your mind.
Where to Find Other Information for Your Stretch Assignment
You also have to conduct information research, but I must caution you, not to solely rely on information that you find on the internet. Information on the internet is not vetted, anyone can create a website, or webpage, so you cannot guarantee the quality of it. Often, you can trust websites that end with .edu and .gov. I have also included links to two posts I wrote that will help you to evaluate the quality of the information that you find on the internet.
Additionally, most public libraries have online portals that give you offsite access to online commercial information databases. The library pays a subscription fee to use the databases. The information in the database has been vetted, so you can trust it. Make sure that you have a library card, so you can access these commercial databases for free. If you attended university, as part of an alumni perk, you may also be able to access the databases that the school subscribes to.
Information gathering also includes reading books – both fiction and non-fiction – on the topic. You may be shaking your head and thinking that I am nuts to recommend reading fiction. The reality is that fiction writers, who produce great work, spend a lot of time conducting research, so that the story sounds believable. Also, people do write about what they know, so you may find an author, who is knowledgeable about your industry and niche. You can sometimes find information that you won’t find elsewhere.
When deciding which books to choose on the topic of interest, do not rely on bestsellers. Talk to the librarian at your public library to start building a reading list. Add the book recommendations from the experts. The next step is to browse the Table of Contents in all the books on your reading list to choose the Top 10 that would likely be helpful to you.
Other places you may not think of when gathering information are in forums, and in LinkedIn and Facebook groups.
How to Read Books for Your Stretch Assignment
There are 10 books on your reading list, the good news is that you do not have to read them from cover to cover. Spend an hour pre-reading the 10 books. You already have the questions that you are trying to answer.
Read the introduction to each book, review the Table of Contents and Index. Quickly flip through all the books. Decide which chapters, and sections are worth your full attention, based on the questions that you are trying to answer.
Also look out for important information that your questions do not address. You may find a needle in a haystack.
In your notebook, write out your questions, leaving space for the answers that you will find while reading the recommended books. You already have some of the answers from the experts and the articles from the commercial databases.
You may be tempted to type your notes as you read, but studies show that you will remember more of what you read, if you write out your notes. When you write your notes, you tend to rephrase the information, so you remember it because it’s in your own words. When you are taking notes, write down your reactions to what you are reading because this helps to add context and insights. Also pick out the five big ideas.
I have a tip for you that will make the process more efficient, and it’s based on my personal experience. I wanted to understand how ideas spread, so I selected the books that I wanted to read. At the end of the month, I had read seven related books, and in addition to the other two books I read that month, I had one full notebook of my notes. I do not type very fast, so it was torture to type up all the notes, and it took forever because I didn’t want to do something that I do not like to do.
Since then, I invested in a Livescribe Echo Pen. Using a special notebook and pen, you take your detailed handwritten notes as usual. When you are finished, you connect your pen to your computer, using a USB cable. You are able to upload your handwritten notes to your computer and you can export them directly to Microsoft Word. Right now, the accuracy is 90 to 95 percent because of my handwriting. This is forcing me to take time to write properly, so that my writing is legible.
Another point about the Livescribe Echo Pen, is that you can record meetings and interviews, then upload them, which is converted to text. My criticism with the smartpen is that when I am tired, my handwriting is not as good as it should be, so I have a lot more cleaning up to do with my notes. I think it should be more intelligent. For example, the pen transcribes “haxe”, which is not a word, it should suggest “have”.
Combining All the Information for Your Stretch Assignment
You now have information from a variety of sources – information interviews, notes from articles, notes from the books you read, and possibly some from forums and social media groups. Now it’s time to combine the information so it’s easy to review.
Put all the answers to a specific question together, and do that for every question. Set aside time to review your complete notes. Read through your entire notes more than once, to make sure that you have a sound understanding of all the information.
In the next installment in the series on “Taking Control of Your Career” and becoming more valuable and marketable in the process, I will teach you how to analyze the information you have gathered so far.
First Appeared on Birds on the Blog