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“.
Be a More Effective Manager – stop answering those questions, seize your time, and it’s your fault
Become a More Effective Manager – Three Counter-Intuitive Steps
In the world of planning and strategy, there is a truism that too much planning, too much detail, too much analysis, leads to inaction, to a loss of opportunity. Along the same line of observation, in the world of learning to becoming a more effective manager, there can be too much study, too much thinking, too much integration of the many many skills and aptitudes required to become more effective. In both strategy and management skills action is almost always preferable to another round of study. Action bumps you up against the real world and provides the real basis for improving skills and results.
But, that still leaves us with the nagging question as a manager, especially for rookie managers and supervisors, how do I get started?
Based on many years of personal work as a manager and many years coaching managers, here are three steps you can take that will get you into action and guarantee striking results. These results will come in your personal effectiveness and in of the results of the organization you manage. Remember, by results, I am referring to the three meanings Drucker defined: (1) direct business results (usually measured in $s); (2) improved organizational culture (values); and (3) development of people. ((see Chapter 2 – What Can I Contribute? in his book The Effective Executive))
1. Stop Answering Questions
If most managers could listen to themselves, the proverbial fly on the wall, for just a few hours, they would discover that they are chronically enabling dependency all around them and undermining whatever formal delegation systems are in place. How is this happening? Just listen and you will hear a stream of questions coming at them followed by answers in response. You are enabling the following the reflexive pattern: ask the expert and be rewarded with answers. Ask the boss, get an answer, and be safe from responsibility for the answers.
If you want to get people to take responsibility and be involved in the business, you can’t go on answering all these questions. They will just go on asking whether they need to or not. And, you are spending an enormous amount of your time, your most valuable resource, to answering all of these questions.
What should a manager do to break this pattern? Continue reading
Recent work with a client brought home to me again the interplay of TPS (Toyota Production system) and intuition.
We were working on developing a job scheduling system in a classic job shop environment. We had worked out a rough value stream map from sales inquiry to shipping. It was clear that there was very little data anywhere. This was a small business environment where everything existed in the heads of the key players. The owner repeatedly asked when we were going to get to the job scheduling system and, “Mark, what is it going to look like and how will it work?”
I kept fending the team off by telling them that we had to push our mapping as far as we could and then, “The answers will appear from the map. It will be clear to all of you how to solve the problems.”
So, we pushed ahead until we reached the point where we needed to develop a simpler sense of the flow of the work. When I asked the team to identify the key groups of activities among all of the ones on the wall, they readily came up with five and, with a bit more discussion, we ended up with seven work centers. Based on the group’s intuition we then designed some job packages and a rough scheduling board to help us put into practice a visual job scheduling system.
This system is now up and running. Improvements are coming regularly. For the first time in the history of this 22 yr. old business, everyone can see what jobs are on the floor, where they are, and each person can pickup a job packet and know what it is that needs to be done in their work center without asking for advice, very often.
The key for me is my faith, demonstrated repeatedly in action, that value stream mapping and job shop lean flow processes can encompass just about any job shop environment. If you follow these practices you will reliably discover a solution that will produce significant steps towards a high-performance business. And, the best part is that with your guidance (and keeping your mouth shut) the team will discover their own solutions that they can continue to improve long after you depart.
Yesterday’s New York Times contained an article by David Pogue, “Mom and Pop Get a Partner: Microsoft”, that announces a whole new suite of services for small businesses from Microsoft. And they are all virtually free. You can set up a website in minutes, purchase your own domain name for free for the first year, get email, use collaborative tools including calendaring, project management, shared documents and more. All of this come with some pretty powerful user access controls so that you can set up teams to collaborate internally or include your customers and everyone sees and changes only what they are supposed.
I would say that anyone in a startup or small business who does not already have a website and these other tools should immediately click on over to Microsoft’s OfficeLive site and check this out. This will require some real work to take advantage of all of the tools available here, but it is not often that such a comprehensive suite is available essentially for free.
If you add a few web-based applications for writing, number crunching, and presentations, clearly we are approaching the new world of cloud computing more rapidly than I had thought. I regularly use Buzzword for my writing. Others may like the suites of tools at Google or Zoho, for example.