Before you accept the assignment, you try to make sure you fully understand the ramifications of what you are about to undertake. You ask questions and get clarifications so that you can identify areas you may be unsure of. You do some research to learn more about the assignment (based on internal information, information from the Internet, universities, libraries, professional organizations, etc.). You seek to understand and appreciate all of the aspects of the assignment, and to try to consider the known knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns that are likely to be encountered (see Plan Based On What You Do Know, and On What You Don’t!). You know you won’t be able to foresee everything, but you ask questions so that you fully understand as much as you possibly can. You identify resources you believe you’ll need to help you along the way (people, equipment, facilities, etc.), and gain concurrence that they will be made available to you at the appropriate times.
You then decide to accept the assignment. You accept the fact, in theory if not in practice, that you will own this job; all of it! [see Show True Professionalism!] But you may not fully appreciate what that really means. [I’ve had employees who started off such challenging assignments with great intentions but didn’t really have a clue of what was involved or what their responsibilities truly were; some succeeded very well, and others went down in flames and had to be bailed out, to the pain of many others who had to be brought in to help.] You start out with lots of vim and vigor to try do everything perfectly. That works for a while, but then you stumble on one particular aspect of the job, and then another, and another. Before long it seems that the problems are badly outnumbering the solutions (see When Bad Things Happen To Good Projects and The Best Laid Plans … and Then Life Happens!). What started out as a great opportunity is starting to look like it could become a total disaster. What do you do?
First, step back a bit and ask yourself some questions. Have you really prepared properly for the job? Have you put together a proper plan of attack (see Failing To Plan Means You Are Planning To Fail!)? Have you reviewed your plan with others to identify holes, proper ordering, timing, timeframes, and dependencies of tasks? Have you sought out advice and help from peers, subordinates, and bosses? Do they concur with and support your plan? If the answers to one or more of these questions is no, take the time to properly answer and address them.
Next, ask others to seriously review and critique the work you’ve done thus far, particularly where you have been stumbling and what you have planned. Fresh sets of impartial eyes looking at things from different points of view can identify holes and other problems that may otherwise go undetected, and solutions that you may have not thought of. Be welcoming of constructive criticism, even if it hurts. It can only help you to deliver a better product.
Next, ask for direct help where it’s needed. Ask your boss for help. Ask him/her about who has knowledge in areas where you need help or where he/she feels more information can be found. Ask if others can be assigned to help you get things back on track. Suggest those who you believe can best provide help. Seek out others who can help with areas you are unfamiliar with. Look outside your organization and company for help. Look to those from your past who can help or can direct you where else to look for help. Look to your friends. Look to your “enemies” (just because you don’t get along well with someone is no reason to exclude them in your search for help!). Learn from others. Be grateful for their help, and give them credit.
Modify your plans and attack the problems with new energy based on what you have learned. These steps should put the assignment on a better trajectory. Regardless, spread credit for success generously, but accept all blame for problems and failures personally. It’s your project and your responsibility. Along with shared credit for success comes personal responsibility for problems or failure.
If you are simply incompetent, first try to become competent by asking others for training and other help. If you remain incompetent, you’re in the wrong line of work. Tell your boss you simply can’t do the job. Do this as early as possible. Don’t wait to get fired; leave on your own (see When It's Time 'To Walk Away', Don't Turn Back!). It will be healthier for you and for your bosses and coworkers.
Finally, recognize that your job also includes onerous work you despise – drudge work. Guess what? You own this work too and you need to do it diligently and to the best of your ability. Your job also includes tasks you know you have to do, and which you recognize are important, but which you dread doing (e.g. completing the crappy paperwork that comes with any job, writing performance reviews if you’re a manager, providing performance input to your boss for your review, entering timesheet information on a daily or weekly basis, etc.). Again, you own it! Do it right! Saying “That’s not my job” just won’t cut it (see Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, and Do What You Say You’ll Do!).
Throughout this process, don’t make excuses. Don’t fake it and pretend that you know what you’re doing. Don’t half-ass it and expect others to cover your shoddiness or sloppiness. Don’t do just the parts you know how to do and leave the rest for others to cover. Don’t blame others for your mistakes; own up to them yourself. For God’s sake, have some pride in what you do! Man up! Be a professional! You accepted the job and any failure to deliver is your fault. OWN YOUR JOB! ALL OF IT!