Thursday, December 1, 2011

Knowing When to Lead and When to Connect

This scenario happened at work earlier in the week. If this was a multiple-choice question, what is the correct answer?

A customer from the fundraising arm of the organization, who views you as a source of organizational knowledge, emails you with an oddball question. He had received an urgent, time-sensitive certified mail from a medical equipment manufacturer regarding mandatory upgrade of the system. The mail was misrouted to the fundraising department, and he does not know who this letter should be forwarded to. You have no idea who the manufacturer is, or what they produce. Your customer did include a web link to the manufacturer's page. This is not a system that your Help Desk supports. What do you do?

A) Do nothing, as it is completely out of scope with your expected job duties.
B) Tell the customer to return the certified letter to the manufacturer.
C) Respond to the customer and tell him to contact the main Help Desk. Let someone else deal with this mysterious problem.
D) Take full ownership of the issue and assure the customer that you will take care of the misdirected certified letter.
E) Perform a cursory research of the manufacturer, and use your organizational knowledge to identify a potential Subject Matter Expert (SME) who work in your organization. Then connect your customer with the SME.


The answer? Obviously the first three answers are incorrect, unless your raison d'ĂȘtre for working is to collect paychecks while ignoring the needs of your customers. The remaining two answers are tricky, though.

If you view yourself as a customer advocate (as opposed to, let's say, a sheep who demonstrates no initiative), it's tempting to embrace the role of Superman and take ownership of the issue. Nothing feels more gratifying than embracing a challenge head-on and riding off into the sunset after saving the day. But there is a more efficient and effective course of action.

The answer E) might not exude the bravado and heroic air as playing the Lone Ranger. Taking full ownership of a mysterious problem might be rewarding for the problem-solving type, but it can lead to inordinate time spent on an issue that could be resolved quickly and effectively by resident SMEs. Being a Knight in Shining Armor can often lead to unexpected scope creep and time drain. It's important to realize that one can't know everything. That's why knowing who the SMEs are is just as important, if not more, as knowing everything. I've learned over time that often times it pays to connect people instead of leading change--too many examples of playing the Lone Ranger who became scope-creeped come to mind.

In the scenario, I learned that the medical equipment in question was some sort of ophthalmology examination room machinery. I forwarded the customer's original email to a technical contact who works in Opthalmology department, added a brief summary of the issue, and asked him if he knew anything about the vendor or the equipment. I cc'd the customer on the query email. It turned out that it was an equipment that was used by the technician's department. The SME then provided the customer with mailing information for routing the certified letter. All I did at that point was to watch the successful resolution unfurl right in front of my eyes without putting additional time or work into fixing the issue.

Cultivating an organizational knowledge is essential in any aspect of work and life. It is helpful to leverage your connections and network, and watch the experts do their thing. Being a Super Trouper can be rewarding, but sometimes it's equally rewarding to let the SMEs shine.

1 comment:

  1. I learned this the relatively hard way when I changed jobs and, consequently, institutions. I lost all of my organizational knowledge. Both the official SMEs but also those that just "knew stuff." I really had a hard time devoting enough time to learning the new environment. Probably took me more than a year, in truth, which is something I don't like to admit. Excellent post.

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