Lean into the white space
I love this phrase for describing what the best employees do when they find an unanticipated problem that needs solving, fulfil a customer’s unmet need, or do something new to make the workplace a better place!
Leaning into the white space.
Something a little like this:
Here, I want to talk about the advantages and pitfalls of this behaviour.
There’s white space around all our job descriptions, and we can reach into that space and create something new and valuable, for ourselves, our colleagues, and our customers. When we lean into the white space, we follow a great piece of advice:
Don’t follow your passion. Bring your passion with you!
If you’re reading this, you’re probably already the sort of person whose looking to bring their passion wherever they go, and who leans into the white space. Maybe you just can’t help yourself because you want to see things done well. Or maybe you’re looking to progress or change careers and seizing those development opportunities wherever you find them.
Whatever your motivator, you’re adding extra value to your organisation and your colleagues. I want to use this week’s newsletter to think about some of the biggest disincentives and how we can tackle them to make leaning into the white space more productive and more attractive, so others can join you there!
I don’t want to tread on anyone’s toes
This is a common anxiety people have. It might come from high-considerateness on a personal level, or low-connectedness on an organisational level, or just having been burnt before by finding that a great project you’ve been working on suddenly “belongs” to someone else.
We see this particularly in large organisations, where it might not be clear whether anyone has responsibility for something at all, or how it might be progressing. In those sorts of places, it can take weeks of asking around to find out whose job it might actually be to do something like your Great Idea X. Or perhaps it’s 100% clear whose job it is, but they’re not doing it, or they’re not having the expected effect.
Either way, you’re left wondering whether leaning into the white space is going to be a help or a hindrance, to your organisation and to your career!
So what do I do?
Talk to more long-serving colleagues first. Get the backstory on whether this work was ever done or tried, and what happened to it. Talk to your manager about where the work might live, and whether there are any wider organisational issues that stand in your way. If the goal is personal development and you really want to be hands-on, this is also a nice way to get informal feedback about how that might be received. But more broadly, getting the idea out there and approaching it with curiosity is the best thing you can do for trying to clarify the situation and inspire change, whether or not you end up leading it.
It’s not worth bothering
This is probably the biggest demotivator for people naturally inclined to lean into white space. And it normally comes about because work in the white spaces goes unnoticed and unrecognised, or is embraced for a few days and then put to one side. If something that you value isn’t valued by the organisation, that can put your relationship with your manager and your employer on shaky ground. Not to mention undermine your self-confidence.
In coaching people in this situation, key questions might be:
- How essential is this work to the organisation?
- What would it achieve? What are the tangible outcomes for clients/customers/the bottom line?
- How essential is this work to you?
- What is the worst possible outcome of doing this work, for you and for the organisation?
These questions encourage you to think about two things: the trade-offs (a pros-and-cons balance sheet) and the motivators (for you and for the organisation). Think about why the work isn’t already being done, or done well. Is the return on investment actually too low? Is the organisation experiencing initiative overload and trying to refocus? Does the organisation just not value the potential outcomes as highly as you do? Is that a problem for them (a business model problem), or for you (a role-fit problem)?
So what do I do?
Your first instinct might turn out to be right, and it’s not worth bothering. But that’s a sign of a bigger issue and another white space you might be able to lean into.
This story was originally published via my weekly newsletter about how to make your work-life, and your workplace, better. If that’s your bag, it’s free!