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7 December 2021

Working from back to front: Specifying results instead of assigning tasks

“Boss, here’s your evaluation. This time I really tried to get to grips with the figures.” The boss replies: “I’m really curious to see what you came up with. Let’s have a look. It’s obviously been quite a difficult gestation.” The employee smiles painedly, the boss reaches for the documents and, after looking at them for just a few seconds, frowns in disappointment. “That’s the third shot you’ve had at it, and you’ve ended up wide of the mark again. How many more attempts do you need? You don’t usually have such a hard time, do you?”

I used to see this a lot, until at some point the truth dawned on me. The boss is a top professional, the employees are smart, and the explanation delivered a clear job description. Despite all of that, the results are disappointing. Without his suspicions being raised by the regularity of such letdowns, the boss goes ballistic – a common last resort, especially when failure to understand instructions is endemic.

Or, instead of ranting at just that individual employee, the boss bawls everyone out – thereby completely overlooking his own part in the confusion. The bottom line is that no single person is solely to blame; everyone shares equal responsibility for getting things right.

As employees gain more professional experience, their knowledge and breadth of vision expand. The good ones then deliver spotless results on demand. Younger employees in particular, however, tend to fall into an all too gaping trap: they open their ears but don’t listen properly. “All right, boss, no problem!” they blurt out. They have often only taken in the first half of the sentence, while the second half goes in one ear and out the other. After all, as a junior executive, you don’t want to make a fool of yourself and be seen as slow on the uptake. Ideally, you’ll jot something down, but the boss usually speaks faster than you can write. And at the same time, you also want to look him in the eye.

The next day, the junior executive sits down to the assigned task, with an incomplete written record of what was said, a fragmentary memory of the meeting and responsibility weighing on his or her shoulders. Tick, tick, tick, tick – the deadline approaches relentlessly. Finally, something is cobbled together that the boss was actually hoping would be carved in stone. Of course, it’s an embarrassment and the boss is disappointed. But because he is patient, he explains everything again – this time in more detail, more graphically and more forcefully. Nonetheless, this time too, the whole exercise ends in anticlimax.

The boss too is starting to feel the pressure: only four days to go until the supervisory board meeting and the presentation is still at the embryonic stage. Should he perhaps do the whole thing himself? This is strictly a no-no. Firstly, it is not a management task, otherwise it would not have been delegated. And secondly, the employee will only take one lesson from this: “If I say ‘I’ve got no idea’, the boss will stay late and do the job himself while I finish work and go home on time.” The subordinate doesn’t even mean to cause trouble; it’s just a sort of reflex response that over time overburdens the manager and underchallenges the junior staff. The latter then only do the easy stuff – albeit with a success rate of 95% instead of just 70% before.

Are you wondering how things could be better? Imagine you need an evaluation of various products, cross-referenced with the retail partners, in order to derive various insights and come up with a strategy. This is now the third time you have sat down together, and your subordinate has demonstrably made a lot of effort, but unfortunately missed the point yet again. He obviously still hasn’t really understood what you require from him. But instead of asking you, he is doing the best he can without knowing what’s what. It’s obvious why this situation isn’t going to work.

Here’s the solution. You not only know how inexperienced employees work, but also what makes them tick. So, sit down together and explain to them precisely what it is that you would like them to do and for what purpose. The “what for” is just as important as the “what”.

Because only if the purpose behind the task is clear will your subordinate know that you want to carry out an ABC analysis, for which your data must be structured in a particular way.

Following your explanation, hand your employee a felt-tip pen and ask him or her to briefly sketch on the flipchart what their new report will look like.

You are, so to speak, working out the result before the result is there – the so-called “result type”.

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Image: AdobeStock khmel

Discuss this result type with the employee who then either hangs the sheet on the wall next to their desk or takes a photo of it so that they always have what they sketched out readily available to consult. In a manner of speaking, the employee will then work backwards from the result and thus hits the precise target that you are aiming for.

And the best thing about this approach? The whole procedure also works excellently in a team, especially when things go haywire in a hectic high-pressure meeting. As soon as someone speaks up, you push for the result type. Is his or her bullet hitting the target, or is it just one of many strays or ricochets?

In my years as an entrepreneur, manager and consultant, one of the lessons I have learned – sometimes through painful experience – is that all results are ultimately down to the boss, including those contributed by subordinates.

If the path to the result cannot be the goal, then the goal must become the path to the result.

Matthias Kolbusa

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