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Why You Should Volunteer For the Tasks No One Wants

April 2, 2013

I’m not talking about taking out the garbage, or cleaning the hallway closet. Those might be good tasks to volunteer for, but probably are not going to have a direct impact on your career.

But, in an organization don’t be hesitant to jump into a task that no one wants. There can be many benefits, and if you set the right expectations going in, the downside is pretty minimal.

I was working for a company that had two email systems. One was for 30,000 employees, and ran Microsoft Exchange. The other was for 60,000 volunteers and ran on a product called NetMail. The NetMail installation was old and plagued by service outages. But, it was cheap and there is generally not a huge budget to provide free services to volunteers.

I was new to the company and my team owned both email systems. My Program Manager came to me shortly after we’d completed the Exchange installation.

“I think the next project we tackle should be to replace NetMail.”

“I’ve heard that is the project from hell. It’s been tried multiple times, right?”

“Yes, but I never had a Messaging Team manager like you to work with before.”

He was smiling as he said it, but the implication was clear. He was appealing to my ego, and my sense of pride in accomplishing something that had stymied others.

I took the bait.

My coworkers and even my team were skeptical. They had seen one effort after another come and go and we still had this creaky old email system that everyone, especially our engineers hated.

I’ll leave the story of how we accomplished it for another day. I want to spend a few minutes on my reasons for signing on.

The PM controlled the budget, but he didn’t have any actual resources. I had control over the engineers on my team and I was under no obligation to devote those resources to any particular project. So, there was no risk for me in doing nothing. . . Well, there was the fact that my email system broke down every Monday morning and we had to fix it.

If I committed my team to this work, the worst that would happen is that our current project would fail like all the previous ones had. In fact, that’s exactly the results that everyone, including my boss, expected. So, there were very low expectations going in. That was the first key ingredient to my willingness to be involved.

Everyone loves a Cinderella team because they are not burdened with the expectations of success.

The second ingredient was the upside. It was HUGE. This was a problem that had plagued our organization for years. If I could bring off a successful upgrade, it would make my team, the PM and me look like rainmakers.

It was an incredibly difficult process. We opted for a privately branded version of a popular free email system. The contract negotiation alone took over 8 months. . .for a FREE service.

However, when we were done, the volunteers were thrilled. My team was absolutely beaming with pride. The PM got a promotion to run our entire department, and it didn’t hurt my career either.

You still need to exercise judgement, but if the expectations are low enough, and the potential payoff high enough, don’t be afraid to tackle the tasks that no one wants.

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