Delegating The Desired Outcome

Date: Wednesday, August 13, 2008 by GTD Times Staff

Maurice Gavin – former staff presenter with the David Allen Company

maurice-1.jpgDuring a recent seminar I delivered,  a  senior company leader asked the following question: How do you recommend I delegate?

I have been asked this question before but lately it seems that this question, or one like it is being asked more and more frequently.

Usually this question is being asked by individuals who manage others and/or who describe themselves as those who ‘get their work done’ through educating, inspiring, leading and supporting others–sound familiar?

It seems to be a more and more common concern for people who are senior in their roles and responsibilities: “How do I delegate such that I hedge my bet to improve the odds that what I delegate will be done  on time, within budget and to my standard of quality”.

The person who asked the question then proceeded to tell a near horror story: what they had delegated to trusted staff turned out terribly.  The end product was

  • Far afield from  what they thought they had asked for,
  • The quality was  poor
  • The available  time to make adjustments was lost
  • And a last minute  decision had to be made to either go with what they had or scrub it  altogether–neither of which was acceptable.

As a result the person who had delegated the task found themselves staying up late that night (the presentation was the next morning) correcting and finalizing the previously delegated task (a critical component of the impending presentation) and doing what they could have done themselves (had they just hung on to the item in question).  Fortunately, after burning the midnight oil, the deliverable was turned in and the day was saved.

The bad news… this manager has the emotional scars from this experience burned into his subconscious.  Now every time they consider delegating to that same individual or anyone else they second guess themselves and more often than not hold onto the item and do it themselves to ensure “it gets done right”

My response to her question and my response to others  who have this question is always the same (I paraphrase for our purposes) .  “ The failure ”  was not necessarily in delegating in the first place, or to that particular individual (usually one intuitively knows who is right for the task or is offering that person an opportunity to ‘step up’), but in the failing to clarify whether the item in question was fully quantified and communicated at the point of the hand-off in the minds and systems of all parties concerned (in this case the senior leader and her direct report)

I frequently will then say, “Did you delegate the desired outcome regarding this item?” in an attempt to get the person raising the question to see for themselves what contributed to the target being missed .

At this point, there is usually a pause as they think about my words and the syntax I have within I have framed them .  Sometimes, they immediately get the play on words, and shorty thereafter they realize the power of ‘Desired Outcome’ as it relates to delegation.

I often will follow-up with questions similar to the following, just to ensure that they have a chance to visualize the steps during the delegation process where they could have inserted the elements of GTD to their mutual benefit:

  • Was the image of  the deliverable you desired to receive in completed form clearly  illustrated?  Often times,  merely understanding the manner in which the deliverable will be utilized  will keep the task on vector toward its desired  outcome
  • Did you reference  earlier times when something similar was done that could serve as a comparable  to this task you were asking them to undertake?  “Remember last  quarter when we delivered the XYZ Report to corporate and the 3rd  section graphs and corresponding analysis”?  Using commonly understood  completed examples will also save time and  frustration.  Did you indicate  the varied audiences that would be consumers of their work and any  sensitivities therein that could serve as landmines en route to their  successful completion of the task delegated?  One example:  “The CEO will  be reviewing this  so the  tone will be a critical element in getting  this to pass muster.  Be sure to make it sound like her quarterly report  letters to the shareholders as she thinks that this is how all correspondence should  sound”
  • Was the  ‘preferred by’ deadline clear?

Everyone is  usually clear on the actual deadline, but often people have unstated comfort  zones that represent how far ahead or behind schedule they are comfortable  being.  This can be a major point of stress for both the person doing the delegating  as  well as the person to whom the work was delegated  (often at a less than conscious level—‘when do they  really want this back’)

Did you identify  the ‘Next Action’ you see as being ‘next’ as the start point you preferred  they undertake first to get them headed in the right  direction?
I am now seeing  leaders train their followers to ask:

  • What do you see as the ‘Next  Action’ for this item you are about to delegate to  me”
  • Did you ask them  for feedback prior to concluding the hand-off such that they could ask for  clarification before finalizing their acceptance of the delegated  task?  Sadly, most managers  (this senior leader included) realize that they hand tasks off at  ‘light speed’ (really fast for you non-Star Wars fans) and never follow up  to determine whether the hand-off was complete.
  • Did you identify  a check-in point where they could identify any ‘sticking points’ while there  is still time for course correction during the term allocated to complete the  delegated task?

Frequently when I ask these questions, senior managers that delegate many tasks will nod in agreement as they realize that the only direction they have given was the stated  deadline.  In many instances their direct reports are  intimidated and as a result they do not come back and ask for  clarity for fear of being seen as less than  ‘up-to-the-task’.

The Desired Outcome Must Be Delegated

If we are going to be effective when it comes to delegating tasks, we must take steps to be certain that what we are delegating is absolutely clear to the person to whom we are delegating the work. This means that:

  1. We must define  ‘what done means’ regarding the thing we are trying to hand off
  2. We must identify the start point so it is clear to the person receiving the task:  ‘what they should be doing first’.
  3. We should give  the the person to whom we have delegated the task an opportunity to provide  immediate feedback as to where or how they  see themselves undertaking this task.  The intent here  should be to ensure that their trajectory is well aligned thereby enhancing  their probability of arriving at the desired outcome ahead of schedule, on  time and under budget.
  4. We must allow for  periodic feedback so that we can monitor the progress of those people to whom we delegate tasks.  This will allow us to see if there are  problems, questions or concerns  and if or when these crop up we will have the time to quickly address them or provide corrective feedback.

As we are more and more dependent on others to support us in the realization of our desired outcomes at work and in life, it is critical to become as effective as possible at task delegation.

I recommend becoming so by “Delegating The Desired Outcome”.

4 Responses to “Delegating The Desired Outcome”

  1. Maurice,

    Welcome aboard. Really nice post clarifying how to delegate effectively…by delegating the outcome. Superb. I look forward to following your posts.


  2. Scot Herrick says:

    I would add two suggestions. One, you have to know the audience for the deliverable. You touched on this by saying “the CEO will get this…” but knowing the audience and the tone required for the deliverable makes a big difference.

    Second, you need to have a draft of part of the deliverable done way early. If the deliverable is due two weeks out, in two days you should see a draft of a portion of the deliverable.

    The reason is it gives you tangible specifics to talk about based on what is in front of you, not theory. That makes everything that more real for both parties and their communication.

    This may be covered in “early feedback” but early feedback can be “how’s it going?”

    You get the answer…”Oh, fine.” And you’re doomed!

  3. Art Hill says:

    Maurice – Nice article. super ideas. thanks!

  4. Thomas says:

    Maurice – you totally changed my perspective on delegation. I’m a “do-it-yourselfer” on a mission to get better at asking for help. Your ideas are similar to what author Samuel Chand calls ‘Vision Casting’. Excellent article


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