Stretch Assignments: Extend, but Don’t Break
What’s the secret to stretch assignments? How much elasticity should be built in? When it’s time to develop a project manager, many organizations make stretch assignments part of the plan. Is it more than assigning someone to a project with bigger scope or scale?
At GBMC, we say emphatically, yes—much more. It’s more than throwing a PM into the deep end of the pool without a flotation device. That’s risky for both the learner and the organization. When a stretch assignment is part of the plan, we recommend answering the following three questions.
Organizations with mature talent pipelines have guidelines for developmental assignments. One of the first guidelines is to have the candidate’s career goals well defined and documented. Another is to ensure the manager has had an in-depth conversation with the candidate about how the assignment is an opportunity for growth. Sometimes, the candidates may have to be relieved of other duties so they can focus on this challenging development project. Another less tangible guideline is to instill in the PM a sense of courage. If it’s truly a stretch assignment, your PM has to have confidence going into this new challenge.
2. What outcomes are expected?
Without clear development objectives, there is a risk that an assignment results in your PMs being stressed out and fatigued. Lacking direction, PMs can be left confused about what was supposed to be learned. When developing your PMs, make sure the skill gaps you identified during skill assessments can be closed by this stretch assignment. Document what the learner will be able to do (or do much better) when the assignment is over.
3. How do we check on progress?
First, take a realistic look at the learning curve to see how many new skills the PM will be working on. Then, put supports (safety nets) in place if there are more than 3 skills with steep curves. Supports can include coaches, mentors, training, reading, etc. Finally, establish milestones during the assignment when the learner is given time to reflect and discuss what is being learned. Include milestones when the manager checks progress. These milestone check-ins should be distinct from other performance or skill assessment activities. They should be dedicated and focused times for the PM to get recognized for skill building or a time to ask for help before it gets too risky.
Successful stretch assignments are planned and monitored.
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