Too often leaders conclude their task assignment/delegation process with the most useless question on the planet , “Now, do you understand?” or the equally impotent “Any questions?” The simple truth is that both questions feel rhetorical and don’t tend to elicit any authentic feedback on the recipient’s true level of understanding or comfort with the task they’ve just been assigned. In fact, these completely ineffective, reflexive type statements do just the opposite – they tend to create the appearance of clarity, consensus, and understanding when the employee may indeed be internally struggling with questions or concerns or worse yet may be stuck in the land of unconscious incompetence where they don’t know what they don’t know.
This false sense of security can bring grave consequences indeed. While the leader moves on mentally to another task or project completely unaware that the task they’ve just assigned is flailing at best, the employee might be riddled with anxiety, spinning their wheels doing the wrong work, or worse yet, letting the task fall through the cracks completely. The truth is that delegation only works when both parties have a common understanding of the expected deliverable, timeframe, and scope. Without that common understanding, the “delegation conversation” can become nothing more than a massive waste of time creating an illusion of progress.
As a strategy consultant years ago, we realized the hard way that our projects couldn’t afford the significant cost associated with ineffective delegation. To minimize that risk we began using these three “magic questions” of delegation.
The 3 Magic Questions of Delegation
Question #1 – What is your understanding of the task?
What you say and what they hear are often two different things, so asking this question is key. When they repeat the task back in their own words, you get a sense of what they actually internalized. For example, if you’ve just asked a subordinate to develop some slides for an upcoming client presentation focused on your company’s new focus on research and development, you might say something like this….
”Ann, thanks so much for taking a stab at this. I know this is a new area for all of us and some of the back and forth emails can get confusing. Just to be sure I haven’t confused you, would you mind just summarizing your understanding of the task before we finish up?”
While it may seem like overkill to conduct this additional check, it’s interesting to note that many mission-critical jobs require these types of confirmations (e.g. pilots repeating back air traffic control issued coordinates for example). In life or death situations this quick check to ensure everyone is on the same page is well worth the additional time investment, and it’s a great best practice that many leaders should adopt.
Question #2 – What does the final product actually look like?
During my strategy consulting years, we incorporated this best practice after getting burned by delivering an extensive market research focused Powerpoint deck when we later found out that the client expected detailed financial analysis/projections instead….oops! Our team and the client’s team both kept throwing around the term “business plan”, but we hadn’t actually taken the time to break down what that deliverable would actually look like, and by the time we realized there was a disconnect, it was indeed too late.
For this question you want to ask the person doing the work to give you an early view, mock up, or example of what the final product will look like. To help move away from the vague labels and toward specificity, you might ask them to clarify issues like these:
- What application will be used to produce the deliverable (e.g. PPT, Excel, Word, MS Project, etc.)?
- How long will the deliverable be (paragraph, 1 page, 10 pages, etc.)?
- What format will it include (prose, bullet points, table, chart, diagram, visuals, etc.)? If it’s a table, what will be the fields? Which axes will define the chart?
Remember that you can achieve this clarity a few different ways: asking them to describe the deliverable, asking them to produce a small sample, or asking them to share a previous similar deliverable from a different project. Yes, you can absolutely take this too far and inadvertently wander into micromanager boss territory so remember that the goal is not to pin down every detail at this stage but instead to get a general sense of what the output will actually look like so that when you see the final product you’re not blindsided.
Question #3 – What will be your first three next steps?
Most leaders know the dread of that feeling like they can’t sleep at night because they’re riddled with anxiety not knowing what is happening (or not happening) with that critical task they just delegated. They can’t help but wonder whether critical next steps are being attended to. They may be mentally overwhelmed with questions like… “Did Jessie remember to carve out time on the VP’s calendar to be sure she can attend the client presentation? Has someone really vetted the new vendor to be sure they’ll deliver on time? Did someone make sure to reserve enough conference rooms for demos so we don’t end up scrambling at the last minute to find rooms to conduct key meetings?” While it’s important to recognize that delegation absolutely requires the ability to relinquish control, asking the simple question “What are the first three next steps you’ll be working on?” can help minimize that nagging anxiety. This feedback reassures the leader that the project is on the right track or more importantly, provides a window for them to provide additional input or course correct if things aren’t moving in the right direction.
Admittedly, you’ll want to use your own discretion to determine when and with whom to use the three magic questions. It’s not a one size fits all best practice, and for some (tasks or staff) it might be unnecessary. While the questions might seem a bit didactic, the truth is that delegation only works when expectations are crystal clear. These three simple questions can evoke that clarity that can mean the difference between a successful delegation and an unmitigated disaster.
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