Taking on new tasks

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —July 20, 2007
Filed in Communication, Culture

A few posts ago I described how you can delegate tasks in a way that informs people with what they need to know to do a job in a complex world. Now let’s look at what you might do when taking on a new task, project, or assignment that has been delegated to you. What follows is based on an excellent podcast by David Maister called Managing Your Boss.

In order to do a good job and build a solid reputation you need to be good at receiving assignments. This means really understanding what your manager/client really wants and needs.

There are a set of questions you should ask whenever your are asked to take on a task. In an ideal world the person asking for your help will give you all the information you need to do a good job. Unfortunately this rarely happens so it’s up to create a way of doing things where it is OK to ask questions.

When your manager asks you to take on a new project or tasks simple ask, “I really want to do a great job for you but may I clarify a few things?”

Then use this checklist1 to collect the information you need to do a good job. I’m sure you will be able to think of additional questions to ask and I would love to hear your suggestions in the comments.

Get the context

First, ask for the context for the assignment. “Can you please tell me what you are going to do with this when I get it done? Tell me who it is for and where does it fit with other things so I know how you are going to use it so I can give it to you in the fashion which is best suited to your need.”

This may sounds like you are being picky, but it also sounds like you are truly interested and it is usually well received.

What is the deadline?

“When would you like it and when is it really due?”

Push a little to find out the absolute last minute that is must be done by while still promising to do it as soon as you can.

Get the scope clarified

“This time would you like me to do the thorough job and take a little longer or this time would you like me to do the quick and dirty version. I can do either. I just need to understand what you would like.


What’s the format you want to see of the results?

”How would you like to see the output of my work presented? What would make your life easier? I want to smooth your way so please give me some guidance on the format which you prefer the best.“

What is the time budget?

”Roughly how long do you expect me to spend on this so I know whether I’m spending too much time on this task and not waste your time.“

Relative priority

”What is the relative importance of this task compared to the other things you have asked me to do? I will try and do them all but if push comes to shove do you want me to put this at the top of the list or put this one at the bottom of the list?“

Playing back your understanding

After asking your questions and making lots of notes, ask whether you can check for understanding. ”May I please just read back to you what you have asked me to do so I can confirm that I have got it down right?“ This is an important step and you’ll be amazed at how many misunderstanding will be avoided by undertaking this process.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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