Somewhere along your path from doer to leader will be a boss who mindlessly forwards an email or tosses out an idea with the intro, “Wouldn’t it be great if…”  

And, you’ll find yourself scrambling to come up with ideas, present solutions, innovate in a vacuum of information, the whole time wondering what on earth she could have meant, if you are going in the right direction, or if you are doing good.

Trust me.  I was this boss.  And, I was this employee too.  So, you know, shame on me, right?

But, that’s the point: often, these missives are sent off without much thought and are not the calls to action you interpret them to be.  No one expects you to deliver a planetary peace plan with an email that starts off with, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we all got along a little better?”  (Though, by all means, if you have one of those plans in your back pocket, let’s have it, pronto.)

A good practice if you find yourself twisting into a pretzel at the very faintest outline of an idea bubble is to internalize that you don’t always have to answer every question and hop to it to race around for a solution.  In fact, most times that people just jump, before asking how high, they miss the mark because they misdefined the mark.  They assumed they knew the mark, and they were wrong.  Plain and simple.  They not only wasted time and effort, they came across as ill-prepared, uninformed, and wasteful: exactly the opposite of what they had intended.  Essentially, they volunteered to make a bad impression.

Next time you feel the temptation to grab onto an idea balloon and pull it down to a place of honor on the top of your task list, first stop and ask the sender to clarify what she hoped to get from whatever task she tossed out to you and, probably, a cast of thousands on the email chain.  Ask her about deadlines, clarify specific parameters, define success.  Either she will do so, and you will be able to be more efficient and more effective — volunteering to make a good impression — or she won’t reply because she hasn’t thought it through enough and there is no actual mark to hit.  Eventually, and if done respectfully, your managing up might find her getting more precise or more personalized, resulting in fewer fool’s errands altogether.  However it pans out, the tasks you own will be clearer and the results you deliver will be better.