Delegate outcomes, not activities.

When it comes to delegating, invite your team into both the thinking and the doing.

Do you consider yourself “a doer”?

That person who enjoys doing the work, fine-tuning the details, meddling in the weeds of how it’ll all work? Then you probably have trouble delegating as a leader.

I know I do.

For so many managers and leaders — especially those of us who are used to be the person doing the work and are now handing off the work to others — learning to delegate is, well, tricky, if not painful.

The good news is that we are by no means alone. I recently happened upon some helpful advice from leaders who similarly have a tough time delegating in a few conversations on The Watercooler. And they were incredibly generous with their advice.

Charlie Elliott, Director of Product at Shopify and Watercooler member, chose to be very honest with his struggle to delegate to others:

“My tendency can be to either take on work myself, or dive into the details and hand over a to do list 🤦‍. Both don’t scale, and both behaviours underutilize the incredible people on our team.”

However, Charlie then shared this bit of gold that his coach had offered on delegating well:

“Invite your team into both the thinking and the doing.”

That is, involve your team in co-creating what success looks like — instead of purely asking them to execute and get you there.

Many of us, like Charlie, have a habit of inviting the team into the doing after we’ve done the thinking. We want to know what we’re asking people to step up to, before asking them to do so. Or we’re so worried about the outcome, we don’t trust others on our team enough to take part in the thinking.

Sean Conner, another Watercooler member and VP of Creative at Guerrero Howe, related to this struggle. He admitted how he’d recently experienced the power of Charlie’s advice to “invite your team into both the thinking and the doing” when a coach he was working with said:

“Delegate outcomes, not activities.”

This means to clear a path for a team member to achieve that outcome however she’d like — because it’s the outcome you truly care about after all.

Now, this is much harder to do in practice. It’s hard to give up control and allow someone to approach an outcome, particularly when we see pitfalls in the approach. We think, “Oh boy, that’s going to take a long time…” or “Ah, they really shouldn’t be doing it that way…” But what Sean pointed out is:

“Delegation is about letting your report learn, and if you believe their approach has a fair chance to get to the outcome, then you must get out of the way.”

Keep that in mind. Not only is delegation a means to getting something done in the here and now — it’s a means for helping your team get something even harder done the next time around. You’re giving your team the opportunity to take in what works and what doesn’t, observe, stumble, fall… and then figure it out themselves. How else will they figure it out if you don’t even give them the chance to try?

When you delegate the outcomes and not the activities, you help employees not just execute for the task at hand, but equip them for every future task after that. You’re giving true ownership to your team.

Thank you, Charlie and Sean. As I divvy up work here at Know Your Team today, I’ll be keeping your advice in mind.

💙 Our software helps you nail the fundamentals of leadership: We help you run effective one-on-one meetings, get honest feedback, share team progress, and build team rapport. Try Know Your Team to find your own answer, as a leader, today.

Claire is the CEO of Know Your Team – software that helps you become a better manager. Her company was spun-out of Basecamp back in 2014. If you were interested, you can read more of Claire’s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog.

3 thoughts on “Delegate outcomes, not activities.

  1. Claire, thanks for writing and sharing your insights on getting work done from others through delegating. The bit you shared about delegating outcomes resonated with me as that’s partly how I delegate work to others. There are also times when I’ve shared exact steps (with my staff) to get work done, as some of those things need to be done monthly requiring almost no involvement from me (as they are simply following a process that we have clarified at the outset). I wrote more about it here,

  2. This is essentially the fundamental principal of the OKR (Objectives and Key Results) management system. There’s a number of books and online resources detailing the concept.

  3. Great piece! Thanks. I was thinking about it for a while and arrived at the concept that suborninates shall be exposed fully to the context of the problem. It creates an opportunity to do exactly what you are talking here, delegation of outcomes and eliminates the need for excessive job description and control.

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