Special assignments should be about developing employees.
But not all assignments are equal in their development
potential. Here are some guidelines to ensure that learning
is optimized during such an experience:
Take a moment to think of an experience in your past that
you believe made a substantial contribution to your ability
to manage and lead others.
The majority of managers when asked this question describe
an on-the-job experience, either a new job or a special assignment
that still resonates as a meaningful learning experience.
If you accept that the majority of management learning comes
from experience, then it follows that you should always ensure
that planned development experiences are designed to optimize
learning. And that’s what this article is about. What
are the criteria of excellent experiential learning assignments?
What are the factors that, if present, will most effectively
teach one about management and leadership?
Several years ago, The Centre for Creative Leadership published
a monologue on special assignments that summarized their
research on the subject. Based on its application in different
organizations, I’ve added to and amended their list
with a resulting list of ten key points. Here they are:
10 Criteria of Effective Special Assignments
- Success and failure must be clearly defined and observable.
Specifics around budgeted cost, time deadlines, quantity
expected, and how quality will be measured are crucial
not only to the employee assigned, but also to those managing
- Whether or not the assigned employee has formal authority,
performance should benefit from a take charge style. There
must be an opportunity to take control and run with it.
- The task should involve working with new people. The
assigned employee must have an opportunity to build new,
constructive relationships in a high urgency setting.
- The task should be described as “stressful”.
The assigned employee must learn to handle situations that
many would find stressful, and excel in such situations.
- The assigned employee should be expected to influence
others over whom he/she has no direct authority. Learning
to influence without positional power is a key to success.
- The project should require multi-tasking. One of
the greatest challenges faced by those moving up the organization
is more complex multi-tasking. There must be an opportunity
to review a number of tasks, prioritize them by urgency/impotence,
and manage time accordingly.
- The assigned employee should have the option of delegating
tasks. He/She should learn not only if and when
to delegate, but also how to delegate with appropriate
levels of direction and support.
- The project must be meaningful and relevant to decision
makers (not simply a make-work project). Many such projects
will have an executive sponsor who will periodically review
- In addition to an executive sponsor, the project will
be more effective if the assigned employee has an opportunity
to work with a particularly effective manager. A key to
experiential learning is learning from an effective role
model and coach.
- A particularly useful type of developmental assignment
is one in which “something important is missing.” This
means that a system or process isn’t functioning
optimally and the assigned employee is responsible for
detailed data gathering, analysis, and problem solving
to improve the system.
It’s rare to find an assignment containing all 10
of these points, but the more you can include, the greater
the value added to the participants, development.
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