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If you have a project and there are questions that need answered regarding a specific part of it but answers are not coming back to you because of a reason such as: "The project is not in scope and as a side project we are not going to push for answers," is it appropriate to go outside/around your boss to get those answers. If so how? If not why?

My situation: In the next month we have a lot of projects slated for our team but currently we have a lot of down time and some side projects that I really want to participate in are coming to a screeching halt because of the lack of answers I have received regarding some of the specifications. My boss won't press for answers because he said since this is a side project we are not "supposed" to really be investing out full efforts into it, however, I go crazy at work with down time unless I find something constructive to do. Ie. learn a new language, take on a side project like this one.

How can I elicit the answers I need to start working on this project because chartered projects come up that require my full time and I have to toss this side project off to a student developer? Additionally, how can I do so without pissing off anyone above me?

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It is almost never appropriate to go around your boss except for specific bad behavior on the boss's part, and that's risky. –  David Thornley Oct 25 '10 at 19:23
    
@David - good point. Going around your boss without very solid grounds is a great way to ruin your working relationship with them. –  JBRWilkinson Oct 25 '10 at 22:35
    
You've mentioned briefly that this is a university environment, but this isn't clear in the question. It might help the answers if you provide more context regarding that. –  Peter Boughton Nov 7 '10 at 20:04
    
Please follow this proposal for that kind of question: Organization aspects –  bigown Dec 10 '10 at 20:55
    
Thanks, I will check that out. –  Chris Dec 11 '10 at 0:34
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9 Answers

If your boss has specifically said not to do X, then don't do X.

I go crazy at work with down time unless I find something constructive to do.

That's an opportunity. Learn something new, but don't disobey a direct order because you don't want to be bored.

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+1 for highlighting learning opportunity –  JBRWilkinson Oct 25 '10 at 22:36
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I've been in the situation where my boss says "Don't do X" and then come pay review time, I get dinged for failing to do X. –  Tangurena Nov 7 '10 at 18:46
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Short answer: No. Your boss is concerned about visibility of an unfunded project - meaning he doesn't want you poking around about it and raising awareness of what you are working on. In some organizations working on an unfunded side project is the same as not working at all, and advertising that may make things difficult for your boss and still not get you the answers you want.

Longer answer: It depends on your personal connections inside your company. What you need to do is casually get this information without scheduling meetings and sending official looking documents around that could get forwarded to the wrong person. If you have a relationship with someone who can help from a prior project, maybe ask them to lunch and pick their brain a bit. Depending on where they sit and who they talk to, you may still need to exercise some discretion.

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Addendum to this: Just because you don't know everything behind what your boss wants doesn't mean that he doesn't have reasons for it. –  Andy Lester Oct 25 '10 at 22:48
    
This situation is more of a matter of clarifying a few specifications. As in does this belong with X or Y? Not so much information regarding infrastructure or anything else, if the situation was not such I totally agree with your answer. –  Chris Oct 25 '10 at 22:59
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Your manager probably said so for a reason. In many organizations the bean counters don't understand that sometimes there is downtime and sometimes there is crunch time. All they see is time. If you're at a point in the cycle where most of your time is spent awaiting QA they'll see that as wasteful overhead instead of seeing the case where you're frantically attempting to catch up to a deadline.

More than likely, your manager is shielding you from things that shouldn't worry you. Just ask him why. Tell him you'd like to push back the viel of office politics to see what he's not showing you. Trust in him.

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+1 for "manager is shielding you from things that shouldn't worry you...". You have me wondering. –  Chris Oct 25 '10 at 23:02
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+1 for recommending that the original author ask if the boss can explain what is going on. –  rjzii Nov 7 '10 at 14:56
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If you did that to me, I would have a very difficult time placing you in a position where you could do something like that again. In other words, you wouldn't like the result.

If I set limitations, I have a good reason for doing so. You might not realize those reasons because as your boss, it is my job to shield you from all of the administrative headaches that comes with being a boss. If you are frustrated due to a lack of response, imagine how I must feel knowing that I've got people idle.

There are times when I have to 'find stuff' for someone to do in order to keep them on. Sometimes, I have to get a little creative about where I put your time when you are doing that. If you went around me, when all I'm doing is trying to keep everyone happy, I would be extremely annoyed. You would have effectively short circuited my ability to help you, as well as others on the team, and possibly as well as others in the future.

If you had strong evidence that I was doing something illegal or improper, by all means, you should bring it to the attention of my supervisors. Keeping you busy while trying not to annoy a client or vendor does not fall under that criteria.

I am the CTO of my company. I am often asked "Is it o.k. to put [sam] and [jane] on [foo] while we wait for [bar] to start?" and I usually say "Yeah, but I don't want to see time or costs logged on [foo], BTW our support with [foo] doesn't officially start till next month, but their sales droid agreed not to bill me this month .. so don't tell them we've actually started working with it yet"

I'd just be thankful you don't have to deal with that, and enjoy a little self directed time as others have suggested.

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If you bypass your boss then you could well be perceived:

  • by your client to be committing to a deliverable that is unfunded
  • by your boss (and his bosses) as ill disciplined and untrustworthy
  • by your co-workers as unreliable or attention seeking, perhaps a smart alec.

But it's your career, not mine...

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A smart alec for bypassing my boss. I am not sure I understand this one. Our clients are all internal, this being a university we develop in house projects so clients/customers/developers we all have a very good relationship between one another. This is a matter of clarification on specifications, so committing to a deliverable that is unfunded is not the case. The project is merely a side project which I was told I cannot work on when the chartered projects are spec'd out. The problem is the timetable, HR (pseudo client in this case) is taking their good ole time. –  Chris Oct 25 '10 at 23:01
    
@Chris: "by your client to be committing to a deliverable". No matter how you cut it, your client will most likely assume you will deliver if you ask them. That's how clients work... –  gbn Oct 26 '10 at 16:36
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Clarification of a specification that is already going to be delivered makes this irrelevant. The project is a phase 2 of a project I already implemented. –  Chris Oct 26 '10 at 16:37
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Never Undermine Your Boss

There is a much bigger picture that you are not, and in my opinion should not be, privvy to. You are trying to rationalize what you see, from your perspective.

I totally get the fact that you are bored and are chomping at the bit to work on something. Why can't you simply tell your boss you want to be more productive, and ask him what you should be spending your time doing?

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Why should the big picture be wrapped in secrecy? If this was a military research or whatever then maybe you've got a point, but for normal stuff it makes no sense to hide things. –  Peter Boughton Nov 7 '10 at 20:07
    
It's not a matter of secrecy or hiding things, that's not what I meant. How often does the strategic plan for a company get spread down to underlings? –  Cape Cod Gunny Nov 7 '10 at 21:00
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I have no idea of the politics of the situation -- and you might not either. Perhaps asking the question is opening a big can of worms your boss doesn't want to open?

Have you tried asking your boss again, explaining your reason why these answers would be helpful? If there is a value proposition, you've got a better shot at getting the answer.

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Trying to get the answer to your questions will actually be an indication you are problem solver. Companies like problem solvers and tend to reward them with promotions, better work conditions, or wiht public rewards.

So go ahead. Show you are someone that people in your organization can count on!

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-1 with no comment. +1 for balance. –  Chris Oct 25 '10 at 20:37
    
Thanks Chris, I really appreciate it, but that was not necessary. I can face such destructive behavior :) –  user2567 Oct 25 '10 at 20:41
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Of course, as much for you as the community. I really do not like when a user downvote with no justification. If its wrong explain why, if you disagree explain why, SE is a place of learning and a -1 does not teach anyone anything. Also, your answer took the opposite approach of the rest and I was curious if anyone would say to go for it as it might demonstrate your self initiative and motivation. –  Chris Oct 25 '10 at 21:34
    
I also find the downvote thing is not constructive at all. I maybe downvoted 4 times for near 500 upvotes. –  user2567 Oct 26 '10 at 6:49
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Ask your boss what he wants you to do, and then do that...

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