Early in my career, I prided myself on my ability to follow orders well. But eventually, I realized that truly serving my boss required more than just doing as I was told -- or as I thought I'd been told.
This notion hit home many bosses ago when my boss asked me to create a project initiation process. I was very careful to build just that, or at least what I thought had been requested. But it turned out that her idea of what she had asked for was quite different. She imagined a 100-page manual outlining every possible project type. I imagined a checklist to ensure that nothing important was missed.
Taking on delegated tasks shouldn't be a passive activity, with the subordinate silently nodding, bowing deeply and scurrying off to fulfill the wishes of the master. To effectively complete tasks you have been delegated, you need to consider four issues.
The deliverable. What specifically are you expected to produce? What form is it expected to take? Whether you are writing a report, developing a piece of code, holding a meeting or providing verbal feedback, you need to know exactly what you are expected to deliver if you are going to do it well.
If you don't know, ask clarifying questions. It may be that your boss is not being articulate about what he wants. Sometimes he may not be certain himself, and it's part of your job to help him figure it out.
The goals. Why you are being asked to do this? What are the business or technical goals that the deliverable is meant to fulfill? How does it relate to other work being done by you or others?
You need to understand the goals that lie behind the request so that you can shape the deliverable to meet them. Without this information, you could give your boss exactly what he asked for only to be told, "That's not what I wanted. I should have asked for something else." Part of your responsibility as a subordinate is not to accept delegation blindly, but to help shape your work to maximize its value.
The delegation relationship. How should you work with your boss while fulfilling the assignment? How often should you give him updates, and in what form? What are the limits of your decision-making rights ? On which issues should you make decisions on your own, and on which should you ask for advice and/or permission?
You need to understand more than just what the boss wants, but also what experience he expects to have working with you. Delegation isn't just about the result, but also the experience of getting that result. You can provide a perfect deliverable, but if the boss didn't like the process of getting it, he'll still feel dissatisfied.
The constraints. When should you complete this task? What resources -- people, money, equipment, etc. -- will you have access to? What are the quality expectations? Are there any political constraints? Who should know what about your work? Are you likely to run into opposition?
Solving any problem requires careful consideration of the constraints under which you're operating.
In that project I undertook many bosses ago, I missed not only the opportunity to calibrate at the outset, but also the chance to recalibrate midproject. My boss was not only upset about the disconnect on the deliverable, but also about how often I had checked in with her.
Passively accepting delegation does not lead to better outcomes. Don't be afraid to push back and ask questions. If you really want to serve your boss well and advance your career, be active in receiving your assignments. You'll probably find that you enjoy them more, too.
Paul Glen is a consultant who helps technical organizations improve productivity through leadership, and the author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks (Jossey-Bass, 2003). You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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