Scale Up and Delegate Out, with GTD - Next Action Associates


Scalability is the holy grail of good business practice–both for big companies looking to get bigger, and one-person bands just starting out.

The Getting Things Done (GTD®) method is an extremely powerful approach to “scale” an individual’s ability to effectively manage their work and life. It allows a person to do more with less stress, and adding up these individual gains across an organisation can be tremendous. Yet there are also gains to be made in scalability for an organisation that reach far beyond the sum of these individual parts. The key lies in externalising and defining work at specific levels.

In The Mythical Man-Month, Fred Brooks explains the flaws in the idea that if a project will take one person nine months to complete, it should take nine people only one month to complete. Basic management theory now accepts that there are overheads to consider when people start working together. Minimising these overheads through effective communication and delegation–up, down, and sideways–is one of the biggest gains to be made in group productivity.

We encounter a big challenge to scalability when leaders start to become bottlenecks. This can happen to the reluctant entrepreneur who doesn’t want to hire their first assistant as well as the seasoned corporate executive who has let the “if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself” mindset take hold. For more on how leaders can maintain control while moving up inside a company, see my article “Leading the Band without Losing your Rhythm”. For now, whatever the circumstances that are hampering your group’s scalability, I want to offer the remedy of effective delegation as it applies within the GTD Horizons of Focus model.

You can’t delegate what you can’t define, so thinking is required here. Effective delegation means that, as a result of thinking things through, both the delegator and the delegate know exactly what success looks like. It also means, in most cases, that the delegator has a means to track progress and outcome appropriately. The mechanics of those two components–clear initial communication and good followup–can be handled very effectively using GTD by first deciding at which “level” the outcome is being delegated.

Here are each of the six Horizons of Focus, starting from the bottom up, with an explanation of how to delegate well using GTD at each level:

Next Actions – First and foremost, make it clear what result you are waiting to get back. Then record a waiting-for in three-part format: whom you are waiting for, what you are waiting to get back, and the date you started waiting for it. This makes it very fast to scan this list during your weekly review to record appropriate followup. You can also review this waiting-for list in formal and impromptu meetings as needed.

Projects – Make it clear what “crossing the finish line” will look like for the delegate. Record the person’s name and then this outcome, stated just this way, in a projects delegated list. This makes it fast to scan the list to see what people are working on what projects for you. At this level, you are saying, “I don’t need to track all the mechanics of how you get here, just complete this project to this standard.” Again, this list is a good one to scan during the weekly review.

Areas of Focus – These areas are not “done”, but ongoing. This is often where a new hire in a small/mid-sized company gets their first job responsibilities list–by decanting responsibilities out of another area. The key here is to match the accountability to the responsibility–that is, make sure they have enough autonomy to really look after this area, and know what a “good job” will look like ongoing. Then, schedule regular check-in as appropriate–after 90 days, as an annual review, or at whatever frequency makes the most sense. Encourage them also to review this list themselves on a regular basis to proactively generate new projects for any area that is getting off track. For more on using Areas of Focus effectively in general, see my article, “Keeping it All in Focus.”

Goals/Vision – These areas do get done eventually, but are on a longer timeline than Projects. Here, you want to ensure appropriate team buy-in and understanding, mapping longer-term objectives to near-term ones (Projects), and assign these Projects based on the Areas of Focus each person or division holds. Review the Goals/Vision areas as needed as a group and keep updating the near-term Projects in relation to the long-term Goals/Vision as they get closer.

Purpose/Values – This area generally can’t be delegated, because it is yours to fulfil individually, and the job of the Board or owners of a company is to define or refine as needed. The key is to be aligned in these areas as much as possible across an organisation, and also within close working (and personal) relationships. This happens through ongoing communication and revelation.

Until instant cloning becomes an option, you are going to need to communicate and follow up clearly and effectively to get everything done within your organisation. Understanding at what level and in which ways you are going to divide up the workload and track the effectiveness of its execution is key to organisational scalability, whether you are looking to add employee number two or 20,002.

Knowing what you now know, what could you start to hand over that you have been holding onto unnecessarily?

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