Nutshell: the subtle art of briefing – in brief

Written by
Future Talent Learning

06 Jan 2020

06 Jan 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

The key to successful delegation lies in the way we brief team members when giving them tasks to complete.

“Don’t be a bottleneck,” urged former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, making the point that great management or leadership involves effective delegation.

However, too often, delegation goes wrong, resulting in poor-quality work, bad feeling and frustration. Why does this happen?

At one end of the delegation scale is micro-management, whereby the delegator closely observes and controls the work of the person to whom they have given the task or project, meddling and nit-picking along the way. This damages the latter’s confidence and motivation and discourages them from using their initiative.

At the other end of the spectrum is the laissez-faire style of delegation, where a task is dumped on someone, often with little in the way of guidance or clarity, and without progress reviews. When it turns out not to have been completed to an acceptable standard, it may well be too late to fix the problems, resulting in finger pointing and a negative outcome for all.

Neither delegation style is likely to get the best out a team member or to lead to the optimum completion of a task or project. However, the secret to avoiding both of these pitfalls lies in effective briefing.

Here are two approaches that might help us to achieve the outcomes we need while also keeping everyone on board.

Commander’s intent

Using a briefing style known as ‘commander’s intent’ can help us to avoid the micro-management we often resort to when a task has a clear end goal, but is complex to outline, involving fluctuating details and situations. It is an ideal tool for managing uncertainty.

Hailing from the military (as many management techniques do) commander’s intent equates to “a clear and concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the military end state". It can work particularly well when delegating to experienced or highly competent colleagues.

In the workplace, it means describing the desired outcome of a task or project (with an eye to what could go wrong) while leaving the strategy ­of exactly how to get there to the expertise and inventiveness of the individual or team. For example, “create an employee value proposition that reflects our still-evolving employer brand, by a deadline of X”. 

As Daniel Pink explains, autonomy is an intrinsic motivator, which spurs us to engage with our work and to think creatively. Or as the Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie put it: “What I do is get good men and I never give them orders. My directions do not go beyond suggestions…”

Risk factors inherent in ‘commander’s intent’ include the recipient’s competence and confidence. This is a technique to use when you feel sure that a colleague is up to the task (perhaps they even know more about it than you do) or up for the task (quickly getting up to speed if they need to) and are comfortable with autonomy. 

You must also be prepared to ‘let go’ of the process, physically and emotionally, to trust in your colleague’s competence, and acknowledge that their way of tackling it may not match yours, but that they have the freedom to decide on the best course of action. This is about controlling an outcome (for which you maintain ultimate accountability) rather than defining the precise way of reaching it.

‘MVP’ mindset

Where you are keen to empower staff, but are delegating to a more junior worker, or handing over a task that does not have a clearly definable outcome, you will need to have greater input in decision making along the way.

In these situations, instilling an ‘MVP (minimum viable project) mindset’ in your team can pay dividends. By this, we mean asking recipients of a delegated task to provide early drafts or summaries of their work (their ‘minimum viable product)’, so that snags can be spotted early and addressed swiftly with ‘quick fixes’, before problems become deeply embedded and difficult to unpick. Those with a perfectionist streak will need to be encouraged to share raw drafts, so we need to be constructive rather than unnecessarily critical. (“There are a couple of typos in this, did you realise?” is not helpful at this stage.)

The upside of this delegation style is that it is a more collaborative way of working than commander’s intent; however, it also involves a greater investment of the manager’s time.

Both briefing styles, when used effectively and appropriately, can help us to inspire and develop team members, as well as ensuring that a task or project is completed successfully – while freeing up more of our own time to work on other pressing issues.


Test your knowledge

  • Describe how the commander’s intent approach got its name.
  • Explain what the acronym MVP stands for.

What does it mean for you?

  • Think about your usual style of briefing when delegating. Do you tend towards micromanagement or the more laissez faire? What might you do improve the impact of your briefs?


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