Yesterday I was scanning through the Tweets from my friend Bruce Peters and came across a reference to a blog posting by Bernadette Doyle, “Discern Your Strengths – Delegate The Rest“. Its always good to return to these complementary concepts – strengths and delegation (outsourcing), so I read on.
Ms. Doyle’s concatenation of “delegation” and “outsourcing” is a very productive idea. Delegation is normally seen to be a personal act by a manager. A manager delegates certain tasks or responsibilities to someone else in the organization. Outsourcing is most frequently the retention of a third party, external to the company, to perform a function or tasks. Setting these two side by side provides an interesting example of the overlap between the personal skills and attributes of the manager and the larger practice and processes of the organization.
Delegation and outsourcing share many management requirements
Delegation and outsourcing share many management requirements. And they illustrate the overlap between the personal and organization spheres. Both benefit from a more nuanced use of the general management maxim, “Build on Your Strengths”. Both require a substantial understanding of what needs to be done, how it should be done, the results required, and the needed timelines. And, finally, both require ongoing management involvement to assure that those responsible for the tasks or functions, whether individuals or vendors, succeed.
Discern Your Strengths
Ms. Doyle argues that we should examine ourselves to determine our strengths as an initial step. She even provides a link to a tool to help in this adventure. I have talked about this earlier in my posting “Managing for Weakness – a mis-management myth“
“What are my strengths?”
The simplest way to answer this question is to look at the activities where you have had the most and best results. These are your strengths. You might enrich this line of thinking by asking which activities make you happy, put you into a state of flow where you really concentrate and loose track of time? An external, third party assessment can be helpful. I have used StrengthsFinder 2.0. It is good, adequate detail without overreaching. There are others.
Then ask this question:
“Am I spending most of my time working on my areas of strength?”
If we turn to the classical argument for outsourcing, companies are encouraged to define their core competencies (strengths) and strategic must do functions and outsource everything else. This quickly became reduced to a simple examination of the relative cost of doing a function in-house versus via a third party.
At this point delegation (here Ms. Doyle uses the term “outsourcing”) becomes an obvious solution to increasing the amount of time and energy spent doing work that fits into your strengths by offloading tasks.
Focusing on Strength Is Not Always a Good Idea
Although in general it makes eminent sense to focus on your strengths, this is not a rule that should be followed without some thought.
In my practice I can think of numerous examples where the business owner is doing a good job of obeying the “follow your strengths” rule, but, in fact, not achieving the results that the market opportunities are providing. For example, some business owners who are highly detail and control oriented find it easy and fulfilling to remain intimately involved in all sorts of processes that fit into their strengths profile like bookkeeping, inventory control, purchasing management, human resources administration, etc. They are happy doing this work because it feeds into their need for work that is detail and control oriented. Here is a case where I argue that even though they are comfortable following their strengths, they need to drop many of these tasks and devote their time to driving the marketing and sales efforts. For these particular owners, this is uncomfortable territory. This is work that focuses on some of their weaknesses. But, in small firms, even medium size firms, there is no replacing the impact of the owner/CEO in the mind of the customer. So, even though the owner may not be the best possible person to do this marketing and sales work, they are the resource available. And, the impact on the marketing and sales results will show the wisdom of this refocusing on weakness.
I would also note that managers do learn new skills, even in areas of weakness. though your natural bent may not be the world of sales and marketing, for instance, the approaches and skills required are not particle physics. There are plenty of learning tools and business coaches who can help you become more than competent even in fields that you might describe as weaknesses.
In an example of strength misdirecting, I recall a large size electronics firm, a Fortune 500 company, in the 1980s and 1990s. The great strength of this company was manufacturing. Almost all of the managers in the top ranks came from manufacturing functions. Manufacturing widgets was what they did really well. As the world of electronics evolved, they kept doing what they were good at and let product and market development work, activities critical to the future of the company, take a back seat. Soon market share fell from 45% to 20% and the game was over. There were certainly managers at this firm who intellectually understood that they needed to make product development work and marketing a strength, knew that they needed to make these core competencies, but the inertia of the past strengths was too difficult to overcome.
So, one can not follow strengths blindly.
Three Questions for Success in Delegation and Outsourcing
What Needs to be Done, When, and What are the Results Required?
Once you have made decisions about what to delegate or outsource, a key to success is developing a clear statement of what needs to be done, when, and what are the results you want to achieve. The answers to these three questions arm you to select the best person or organization to perform the work and the basis for useful discussions of progress. Nothing like having a clear statement of the results expected to focus the collective minds. With a clear definition of what needs to be done and the results expected you can make the best choice for whom to delegate a task to. Has this person had success in achieving results in the task area defined, do they have the functional expertise required to produce the results? If you are looking at outsourcing, the same information arm you to ask questions about the track record of the various vendors. Do they have the capacity to deliver the results on time? And so on.
Taking Responsibility for the Results – Delegation and Outsourcing Do Not Get You Off The Hook
I wrote recently in a posting, “Outsourcing – not a strategy that is as simple as a make or buy decision“,
However, people may think that outsourcing gets you off the hook and solves all of the problems involved in the outsourced functions. The truth is that whether as a one armed paper hanger or a global giant like Boeing, outsourcing must be managed. You can not manage functions that you do not understand. So, the executive level of any organization (back to the single entrepreneur to global giant span) must understand all of the basic functions of a business (strategy, sales, marketing, product/service development, personnel, operations, finance, information systems, and legal (these are the most important ones)) in order to decide which must be internal and which can be outsourced. Then, you have to have enough knowledge of the outsourced functions to decide on the desired results required, choose vendors, and manage for the results. This may seem to be daunting for the low end of the size scale, but most of this stuff isn’t rocket science at the basic concepts level and one can always draw on people in your network and consultants (like me obviously) to help out.
The same line of thinking applies to delegation. it is simply not acceptable to delegate a task and then not come back to the person tasked for six months to ask, “How are things going?”. Just as with new hires or promotions attentive, timely, and responsive supervision is required. The same rules of responsibility apply to delegated tasks. You made the choice of the person, defined the task and the results required and established a timeline for the results. It is your responsibility to assure that the person succeeds. You have the power and resources to assure that. Although I doubt that delegation is as fraught with failure as hiring new personnel, the failure rate is still high and you can not afford to simply through up your hand six months into the mission and say, “Why did you screw this up?” More here about this management issue, “It’s Always Your Fault – taking responsibility for personnel“.