Embracing Vagueness

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Mike Tyson said (or should that be apparently said), “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”  We all get our fair share of punches while executing the projects and tasks that have been delegated to us.  Punches can come from changes in customer requirements, unforeseen events or consequences from our actions and even changing business priorities. 

This should challenge us in how we choose to delegate to others.  I should confess upfront that I have, in the past, wasted lots of energy, effort and time precisely defining just about every aspect of the tasks I was delegating including how the work should be carried out.  I was never vague! 

Maybe I got carried away with the idea of SMART goals and objectives.  I’d then spend time checking up on progress and making the changes needed because one or two of those punches had been received.

It took me a while to see the distinction between delegation and just assigning someone a task. 

Yes, there are times when you are assigning someone a task.  When the ship is about to hit the iceberg.  But that might be about it.  Most of the time you want the creativity and judgement by others that dynamic circumstances require.  Most of the time you want people’s engagement and buy-in.  And not just their acceptance of your instructions. 

After some failures, I came to see that the “what” that is to be achieved was primarily my responsibility to set.  But not exclusively, and so here I ought to be a little vague.  “Here’s the objective we want to achieve and why they are important to us.”.  With business values shared, everyone has valuable input here to question the validity of the objective or fine tune it. 

It was the “how” where I needed to be a lot more vague, quieter, and when I spoke it was by asking questions.  Questions along the lines of “how might you work towards these objectives”, or “can you come back to my on Tuesday next week with your plan?”.

Then came my hardest lesson.  You’ve probably heard of the expression “trust but verify”.  My past behaviour meant that my people thought this meant that I was going to trust them and then check-up on them.  Hardly trust at all.  And they knew it. 

Now’s the time to dispense with vagueness.  What it should mean is that by having mutual clarity on the “what” and “how” it was now their responsibility to verify to themselves, their internal customers and me that the delegated task was being progressed and then achieved. 

Let me brag.  This new approach worked.  Well not perfectly, but a lot better than before. 


Kevin Wallace
Stoke Consulting