“Delegate Responsibility!” – That’s the usual response if I ask growth leaders about what they think is the most important leadership competency. Only if you manage to delegate in a way that fully transfers the responsibility to the person you want to task with the job or your team, you can scale yourself and help your company grow.
In fact, most founders have a hard time to really delegate responsibility to another person. The reasons are a lack of trust and the need to retain control. The result? You give out instructions instead of responsibilites, instruction that are very precise – and must be followed to the letter. Sad, but true: The person you are leading is going to do exactly what you expect them to, no matter if the result is good or bad. The responsibility still lies with you. You have delegated the task but not the responsibility. That is not something we want to do, especially not in fast-paced environments.
Modern Leadership, Prussian Roots
The realization that “leading by giving orders” doesn’t work in complex environments is not a new one. Already during the 19th century, the Prussian military was looking into this topic. What they found: An order describes a path to an objective. No matter, how well-defined and well-prepared that order is, in reality it will fall short. Helmuth Graf von Moltke said it best: “No operational plan survives beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main force”.
Even the most strictly hierarchically structured organizations like the military know: Even the most precise order, or most perfect plan survives only until reality strikes. This is something the ordinary soldier has to deal with – but not the general. If you follow an order to the letter in unclear situations, you are doomed to fail.
As a response to that realization, an almost revolutionary leadership concept was born: “leading by objective“ or, to use the military concept, “commander’s intent”. This approach, which has become the core leadership principle in almost all modern militaries, does not define the path but the goal. Instead of providing the agent with detailed instructions, the leader defines the goal and explains the context of the whole mission. This is the intent of the leading person. The tasked persons or the team aim for that goal on their own but based on the parameters they have been provided with. Of course, they can only do that if they know why they are doing something – and what the boundaries they are operating within are.
By developing the principle “leading by objective”, the Prussian military invented something long before Simon Sinek called it a revolutionary leadership principle: “Start with the Why”. If you want to lead people, first explain to them, why they are supposed to do something. That way, they will understand the purpose of a task. Then, you explain what the result of the task should be. The how of the job is then up to your co-workers.
This results in you leading on equal footing, flexibility in rapidly changing conditions, and less strain on the leadership through responsibility that has truly been delegated.
Shared Perspective with Briefing-Backbriefing
Important parts of the “Commander‘s Intent“ are the elements briefing and backbriefing. Everyone has their own view of the world. As a leader, you see the big picture, the strategy. Your co-workers are immersed in the details and perceive the operative stumbling blocks. All of you describe the same situation but still manage to miss each other’s points due to a difference in how you picture the problem in your minds. Worst case, your co-worker just agrees to the task without realizing that they have understood the task differently than you intended. Then, the task is going to fail. Your co-worker doesn’t know what they are supposed to accomplish. That’s frustrating for the both of you! Your co-worker can’t act autonomously and you get the impression they are lacking the necessary competence.
Responsibility is only delegated successfully if you are working from the same understanding. This leads us to briefing-backbriefing. In the briefing, you explain what you want to accomplish and why. But don’t go into detail just yet. Even if it feels awkward, let your co-worker explain what they have understood. That’s the backbriefing. You let the co-workers repeat what they have understood in their own words. Using this exchange, you make sure you are really working from the same understanding or if you need to readjust. You will get the few minutes that this procedure has cost you back easily through better implementation and a reduced amount of additional coordination cycles.
Lead Towards Responsibility
Delegating responsibility according to the Commander’s Intent principle requires five steps. If they are executed well, these steps help to strengthen all levels of the pyramid of trust, from building trust to shared goals. This does not only helps to delegate responsibility but also to develop a high performance team.
At first, you prepare the “mission”. Focus on the task which you want to delegate responsibility for and define goals and parameters. The preparation itself will already be really helpful. Make sure you yourself understand the task. What is your goal? What is it that should be accomplished? Along wich parameters? By consciously studying the task, you yourself make a commitment to it. Now you know what you really want.
This gets rid of the typical “drive-by task assignment“ and eliminates one of the usual sources of discontent. Let’s be honest: How often do we assign someone a task where we ourselves lack the understanding of what goal it is meant to accomplish? This problem is an enduring issue within the teams I am coaching. Barely anyone takes the time to precisely define the goal of a task. The co-workers give their best by trying to execute the task as they understood it but end up fumbling in the dark. In the end, no one is happy with the result – garbage in, garbage out.
A good briefing has four elements: a definition of a goal and contextualization, time frame, people and stakeholders that are possibly involved, and other parameters that might apply. The following template might help you design a briefing. Do you notice that it’s missing something? Exactly, it doesn’t contain any instructions on how to accomplish the task – that’s your co-worker’s job.
Questions for the Briefing
- Goal & context: What should be accomplished? Why should it be accomplished?
- Time frame: How much time is available for completing the task?
- People involved / stakeholders: Who else is involved? Who has a legitimate interest in the task and why? What are the goals of the people involved?
- Parameters: Which resources are available for completing the task?: time, manpower, money? How much leeway is possible, what can the tasked person decide on their own?
Using this template, you are perfectly prepared for step two: your first Briefing-Backbriefing. Start the conversation by giving your co-workers the briefing. IMPORTANT: DON’T include any pointers on how to accomplish the task, even if the route is (seemingly) obvious to you. Sounds easy but truly isn’t. We are used to giving instructions on how to proceed. However, the moment you do that, you make yourself a prisoner of your own intention. You assign yourself the responsibility before you can even listen to your co-worker’s input. You yourself pose the greatest risk to the successful handover of responsibility.
The briefing is followed by the backbriefing. Ask your co-workers to summarize the task as they understood it. If there are any ambiguities, clear them up. Give your co-workers the time to ask questions. If you, in that moment, listen closely to your co-workers, you’ll automatically built trust. All of you will start to understand each other better and you will be able to develop a shared imagination by engaging in a discussion where constructive critism is possible.
Apart from task delegation, getting to know each other is a crucial aspect of the “leading by objective”-principle. By talking to your co-workers and giving them space for their own questions, you will get to know them better. What is their perspective? How well do they comprehend and evaluate a situation? Which skills do they have and which skills do they still need to learn? Where do they need your help, where should they work on their own? If you make the effort to understand your co-workers and to listen to them closely, you will built up trust and consequently a true relationship. The best thing about this process: It happens while you work together – you don’t need special “personal meetings”.
The first briefing-backbriefing is finished, once you all have found a shared perspective on the task. The third step is for your co-workers: They can go and give some thought on how to develop a route to the goal. There’s also a simple template for the backbrief.
Question for the Rebriefing
- Definition of the goal: How do you understand the goal and its context?
- Execution: What are you going to do in order to accomplish the goal? Which results do you want to deliver, how will you measure the success of the task?
- Necessary intersections / resources: How will you work together with the other people involved?What do you need from them? What are you going to bring to the table?
The backbriefing starts with the definition of a goal which your co-worker summarizes in their own words. Next, they explain how to they will proceed including the results they want to deliver. Ideally, they will also suggest numerical success parameters and by that accept accountability, in the truest sense of the word. By immersing themselves in the task and by coming up with their solution they assume responsibility. Because the route they suggest is their own and no unchallenged instruction from above.
The fourth step of the delegation procedure is a second briefing-backbriefing-session. The co-worker present the way the want to carry out the task and accomplish the goal. Your job: Listen closely and ask if you don’t understood a certain aspect. Only when you have understood how your co-workers want to proceed, you can make your own suggestions for the execution of the task. Together, you can optimize your suggestion. Again, this is all about the process of listenting closely to each other and engaging in a discourse. All of that will work toward strengthening your mutual trust. Through the mutual suggestion-making, the quality of the execution will increase. Everyone contributes with their perspective, you with your perception of the big picture, your co-workers with their operative experience.
Now all of you decide on how to proceed, what exactly should be accomplished, when it is supposed to be accomplished, and – most importantly – whether you schedule check-in sessions about the task progress. Thanks to the previous detailed meeting, you will know exactly how much support your co-workers need. That way, you can also define how closely you’ll follow the execution. If the co-workers are rather new to the job you will probably schedule more regular check-ins than if you delegate the task to experienced co-workers. By greenlighting the execution of the task, you definitively hand over the responsibility to the tasked co-workers.
The fifth step of delegating responsibility comprises the task execution and the check-ins you have scheduled in Step Four. During these sessions, your co-workers account for the progress they have been making based on what you have agreed on. Since all of you have decided together how the task is supposed to be accomplishd, the aspect accountability will feel completely natural. Because the meeting will not be about berating your co-workers but about checking the progress of the task together.
Of course, communication is also required if the situation unexpectedly changes or if your co-workers want to deviate from the plan. In such a case, they should be able to approach you with their own suggestions about the way to proceed. As long as you haven’t made a habit of the tasked co-workers assuming responsibility for a task, these check-ins are not rarely misused for shunting the responsibility back to you. Be careful that don’t get shouldered with the responsibility again.
Some Practical Advice
For most of us, “leading by objective” means that we have to completely change the way we think. You must think more precisely about the task that you want to delegate responsibility for. The briefings require more time compared to just saddling your co-workers with a task and some instructions. You must engage with people more intensely and face their critical questions. That’s not always pleasant. Especially for smaller tasks, this procedure seems overkill.
Because of that, most executive give up on the procedure after the initial excitement about this new-found superpower has abated. The question is: How can you keep at it – with the same approach you otherwise use to acquire new (and better) habits.
- Think about how much advantages this approach has and try to imagine how it feels when your co-workers start to assume full responsibility. Can you feel the relief?
- Practice with some selected co-workers. Commit yourself to this course by explaining what you are trying to do, and why this method is such a powerful leadership tool. I bet your co-workers will be really interested to train that method with you since it’s going to imporve their own work as well. Ask for their feedback. This way, you indirectly execute a A/B test: Leading with and without Commander’s Intent.
- At first, use the method for medium-sized projects if you have the impression that briefing is worth the effort. For minor responsibilites, you can do the checkliste in your head. Print the checklist and put it somewhere where you frequently look at. That way, you internalize the briefing without much of an effort. Remind yourself that it’s about a principle and not about sticking slavishly to rules.
- The process should be really open-ended. Nothing discourages your co-workers more than you running through the process for appearance’s sake although you know exactly how you want it to be done; or using this approach for routine tasks where no alternative ways of doing are possible. In both cases, your co-workers will feel deceived and more than ever cop out of responsibilities.
With increased usage, this new method will feel more natural. As soon as you have a good feeling about it, you can introduce “leading by objective” in the whole company. Just like in the German army, the Bundeswehr. In their leadership manual, the aspect “application of the principle ‘leading by objective’” is anchored in the leadership manual. There’s no clearer way to state a commitment.
About the Author
With her holistic leadership model, Dorothea von Wichert-Nick helps founders and executive manager to create real and impactful growth – both for their companies and for the people within the teams. The participants of her workshops are founders and executives from growing companies, both individuals and teams. As part of the Operations Masterclass, Dorothea supports entrepeneurial talents as a mentor.
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