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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

What to Do When You Don't Feel Ready for a Challenging Project

Your boss is finally letting you take the lead on a new project. But instead of feeling excited, you feel—in a word—panicked! These aren’t the nerves that accompany stepping out of your comfort zone, though; you feel like you don’t have the proper qualifications, and you’re genuinely concerned about your ability to execute.

Your first instinct may be to decline, perhaps suggesting a colleague who seems better suited or clarifying that, while this project doesn’t seem like a fit, you’d still like to be considered for new opportunities in the future.

But before you tell your boss “no,” take the time to gather more information. Use the three questions below to determine if you are, in fact, the right person for the job.

1. “Why Me?”

Okay, clearly I’m not suggesting you literally turn to your supervisor, and ask, “Why me?” But the very first thing you must find out is why you were chosen for the project. If it was arbitrary—à la “We’re slammed right now, and everyone needs to take on something extra”—then it won’t seem like pushing back for you to suggest a different new task that more closely aligns with your abilities.

However, it’s just as likely that your supervisor meant to assign you to this project (that’s his or her job, after all). And knowing that specific reason can provide a roadmap for your successful involvement.

For example, imagine you're tasked with leading a hiring process for a new team member, despite the fact that you have no experience in HR. While you may think you couldn't do as good a job as someone with a background in personnel, your boss may have chosen you specifically because he wants someone who can quiz the applicants on technical specs that you know better than anyone else.

Finding out why were chosen will help you identify the skill set your supervisor expects you to employ on the project. Moreover, knowing the decision was intentional can give you the extra boost of confidence you need to take on something new.

2. “Am I Part of a Team?”

Still worried you don’t have all of the tools necessary to execute? Well, maybe you don’t need all of the expertise.

I’m not proposing that your involvement with a project depend on how heavily you can lean on your teammates. However, you need to know the people with whom you’re working and what their strengths are, because it may be that your skills will complement each other and allow you to successfully tackle the project together.

For example, I've been a part of several website redesigns, despite the fact I can't code. At first glance, that seems hard to believe—isn’t HTML a requisite to restructure a website? Not in my case—each time, the company already had someone who managed the website technically, but it needed someone to visualize a new look that would be more user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing. So, I’ve submitted redesigns in Word outlines, PowerPoint slides, and Photoshop JPEGs—any format that made sense to the team member in charge of implementation.

I could have simply declined the project because of my lack of technical skills, but by looking for how my experience dovetailed with that of my teammate, we were able to do a great job on something that neither one of us would have been able to do alone. Remember, your ability (or lack thereof) in one area may have little to do with your capacity to advance the project as a whole.

3.“What's the Timeline?”

Before you decide whether or not you can take on this tough new project, consider the timing. If you need to brush up on certain skills and learn others, it will make a sizable difference whether you’ll have time to attend a training or if you’re supposed to be up and running before the end of the week. A task that is due “yesterday” won’t allow for you to consult many resources beyond Google. On the other hand, if it’s a project that will be executed over the next quarter, or if it’s the first in a series of the new initiatives, you will have time to fill in the gaps.

If this is the case, be honest with your boss about the expertise you feel you are missing, and come prepared with a game plan for how you can acquire it. Tell your supervisor that “stage 1” of the project (as opposed to “Before I start..” which indicates that you’re not ready) is reviewing best practices, consulting with experts, or anything else that will help you attain the most successful outcome.

When time allows, an approach that includes you acquiring new skills or expertise will be particularly appealing because it means that you’ll prepared to hit the ground running with similar tasks in future.

It makes sense that you would want to avoid setting yourself up for failure. But that doesn’t mean you should assume you aren’t qualified for new and challenging projects. Before you make a decision either way, gather enough information to see how you might contribute to a successful outcome. And then, remember: You’re probably ready for more than you even realize.

Photo of clouds and ladders courtesy of Shutterstock.