Prioritizing side projects

In a recent conversation at work, someone brought up the value of individuals taking on side/”side of desk” projects.

I have seen great value delivered by side projects. At the same time, I have some concerns about their nature.

I thought it might be helpful to share that dialogue here.

Not everything has an owner.

Sometimes, it’s clear that doing something would be valuable. Sometimes, those valuable things don’t have a clear owner. And as a result, those valuable things remain undone.

This can be a good candidate for a side project.

Some projects require specific knowledge or skill-sets.

Teams sometimes avoid taking on projects because their team members aren’t prepared to take them on. While there is value in gaining knowledge and skills, that investment isn’t always prioritized when that knowledge or skill-set is unlikely to be re-used. And having someone take on something so foreign to them can slow down the entire team.

But if you already have that knowledge or skill-set, it may make sense for you to take on this side project.

Sometimes, people enjoy having a specific side project.

People may want to gain the knowledge or skill-set corresponding to a side project. They may personally feel the pain of something and want to take on the project to address that. They may enjoy working on the side project compared to their current primary work obligations.

Factors such as these may drive someone to take on a side project.

Taking on a side project can help develop communication skills.

The time and attention someone can dedicate to a side project may ebb and flow with their other responsibilities. However, how you see that ebb and flow may differ from how your boss sees that ebb and flow. Ensuring there’s alignment between you and your boss on bandwidth and priorities can be important.

So effectively taking on a side project may require you to stay in regular communication.

Side projects can help provide variety.

As Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson say in It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work:

Be it in hours, degrees of difficulty, or even specific benefits that emphasize seasonality, find ways to melt the monotony of work. People grow dull and stiff if they stay in the same swing for too long.

Side projects may be one way to “melt the monotony of work.” Instead of focusing all your attention on one thing, you have this side project to provide a change of pace.

This can help with engagement and avoiding burnout.

Side projects can help with career progression.

Some projects have a massive, widespread impact when they’re completed. You get all that credit if you’re the only person behind that project. People can see the impact that you’ve had. It’s easier to stand out from the rest of the team.

This can make it easier to be considered for raises or promotions.

And yet, at the same time…

Side projects don’t always help with career progression.

Some projects don’t have the intended impact. (In which case, they may have slowed the delivery of other more impactful initiatives.) And sometimes, even impactful projects don’t get attributed correctly. Someone else may steal the credit, or people may just enjoy the benefits without realizing who did the work.

There is an element of luck, strategy, and self-advocacy required here.

Side projects are sometimes synonymous with context-switching.

When you take on a side project, it means you’re working on multiple things. If you don’t have much control of your schedule, this may require you to switch between projects depending on the situation. Depending on the nature of the project, this may require you to jump on calls or respond to impromptu feedback. This may lead to a lot of context-switching.

And context-switching can be wasteful and inefficient.

Focusing on a single project develops the skill of prioritization.

A side project means multiple things are being worked on simultaneously. This means that there’s no need to decide on prioritization. Prioritization is an important skill.

Without making judgement calls about priorities, it’s hard to get better at making those calls.

Side projects may encourage people to work overtime.

People who enjoy working on a side project may feel more open to working extra hours on it. If people spend extra hours during the work day on the side project, they may feel the need to catch up on other projects after work hours. Or, if people spend most of their time on one project due to a deadline or emergency, they may also feel the need to spend time on the other project.

Too much overtime can result in unrealistic expectations, a bad reputation, and employee burnout.

Side projects may result in time and attention being spent on non-priorities.

Sometimes, we don’t prioritize a side project because our prioritization skill is lacking. Sometimes, we don’t prioritize a side project because we know it isn’t a priority. But if it isn’t a priority, why take it on as a side project?

Taking on a side project takes time, attention, and opportunity cost away from the priority. This can be wasteful.

Side projects may encourage an attitude of NIMBY.

If people see a problem in the commons, one thing they may do is come together to solve it. That involves setting their own interests aside to focus on improving life for the collective. But if you see someone who always takes on solving the problem themselves, life for the collective can be improved without setting your own interests aside.

In this way, side projects can encourage individualism in environments where there is a collective interest.

So while I can see some value in taking on side projects, I also see some potential unwanted side effects. Perhaps there’s some way to take on side projects while addressing these side effects, but that will take some more thinking time in the future.

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