How to be Resourceful

August 31, 2010

What springs to mind when you hear the word resourceful? Is it MacGyver from the television show, who was able to work miracles with his Swiss Army knife, duct tape and other common objects that were always – and conveniently – lying around? (Or am I dating myself?) How about these words?
  • Imaginative
  • Inventive
  • Capable
If you are faced with a difficult issue, one that appears to have no easy answer, resourcefulness is something that is invaluable – and something that we should seek to develop in ourselves and well as others. How do you develop resourcefulness?

Resourcefulness is developed by:
  1. Taking in new information.
  2. Experience gained through action.
  3. Reflecting on results.
Throughout the process, being persistent and involved – and not dumping the issue onto someone else's shoulders – is vital.

Taking in new information. The software world is knowledge work, and if you expect to withdraw knowledge, you need to be routinely placing knowledge into your individual knowledge bank. If you don’t, you’re either expecting to either get by with your current level of knowledge or you’re expecting others to carry you. Given the constant rate of change, “maintaining” your knowledge is effectively creating a knowledge deficit because what you know today won’t be as important – or even relevant – a few years down the road.

People who are considered resourceful tend to take in information in a variety of ways:
  1. They read a great deal, including blogs, trade journals, and books. 
  2. They participate in user/discussion groups (in person and on the Internet) and attend professional conferences. 
  3. They seek out and take formal training classes.
  4. They engage in dialogs with their peers on various topics.
Taking in new information is all about casting a wide net, gaining both explicit knowledge and the perspectives of others. Programmers discover how other programmers approach problems from a design and code perspective, and managers learn about how other managers operate, such as how they conduct one-on-ones or interact with agile teams.

You don’t have to memorize everything, either. Instant recall is nice, but if you know where to quickly find the specifics when the need arises, that will work ninety-nine times out of one hundred.

Experience gained through action. Knowledge work is about putting knowledge into action. Learning from a book is the first step, but being able to apply it will likely require some thought and adaptation to your specific circumstances. This is where knowledge about perspectives and approaches that others take is important. Understanding how other people approach situations can help you consider new and different ways to deal with situations. You’ll have that knowledge and insight to “withdraw” from your knowledge bank.

True learning means actively applying what you’ve studied. It’s like riding a bike; reading about riding a bike won't help you actually ride a bike. Until you take action and actually pedal a bike for yourself, you won’t really “know” how to ride a bike. This is why passing a problem off to someone else – and removing yourself from active participation – shortchanges the process of becoming resourceful. If you want to become a resourceful individual, don’t deny yourself the valuable opportunity to learn by taking yourself out of the loop.

For new managers that might be reading, this translates to focusing attention on management functions and not the work that you used to perform as an individual contributor. Some work is no longer your job, there are other areas that now need your attention. Learn more about those duties and work at making yourself better in those areas.

Don’t let the fear of failure overtake your thoughts! Fear of failure can prevent you from obtaining valuable experience that makes you more resourceful. As a manager, I’d rather work with those who are striving to improve, pushing the boundaries and striving to stretch themselves as opposed to continually prodding and pushing those who want to operate strictly within their current knowledge and comfort zones. Take on assignments that will stretch you. Take care, of course, to not reach too far beyond your present capabilities that represent a longer-term goal. This is where a good partnering dialog with your manager is very helpful.

Other ways that people gain experience is through tinkering on small, side projects. Perhaps there is new technology that you would like to explore, but there isn’t a good reason to utilize the technology in any of your current work. Build a small application to tinker with it. The experience and knowledge gained about the practical trade-offs will likely prove valuable later, when that technology is being considered – making you resourceful. (As a software manager, I tinker with small projects as one way to keep current and conversant on technology.)

Reflecting on results. Everyone’s personal experiences in life are different. We all have our strengths, preferences, and perspectives that have been developed over the course of our individual and unique experiences. Take time to consider what went well and what didn’t work out quite as you expected, given these factors and the specific scenario involved. This can point the way towards new knowledge and experience to seek out.

Over time, you will become resourceful, an important distinction from simply being knowledgeable. As Tony Karrer put it, you will become knowledge-able.