How to Better Track the Tasks You Delegate to Others

Perhaps you may have heard the adage, “what gets measured gets improved.” I would propose a parallel principal: “what gets tracked, gets done.” This is especially true when it comes to delegation.

A Business Person Taking Notes in a Journal - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #435078

Photo courtesy of ©

Early in my career, I had an experience that burned this into my psyche. As a first-time supervisor, I didn’t want to be guilty of micro-managing my staff. I had been managed this way, and found it to be incredibly demotivating. As a result, I went to the opposite extreme: I delegated tasks and never followed up.

One day I was sitting in a marketing meeting with one of my company’s authors. I was his assigned marketing director. In a previous meeting, I had committed to him that I would follow-up on a problem he had with a report we had sent him. I told him I didn’t know the answer, but that I would research it, and share what I learned at the next meeting. I delegated the task to one of my staff members—and forgot about it.

In the meeting, the author, who was a copious note-taker, started out the meeting by asking me to report on the issue from the previous meeting. I looked at the colleague to whom I had delegated the task and watched the color drain from his face. It was obvious to everyone that he had not completed the assignment. It was a very awkward moment.

It would be easy to blame him—and I did. But as the leader of my department, I was also responsible. I was the one who made the commitment, and delegating to someone else, didn’t erase my own accountability. I was embarrassed and purposed that I would never find myself in that situation again.

Over the course of the next few years, I learned that I had to make delegation work, I had to take five steps:

  1. Assign the task to one person. Ask them to confirm that they understand the assignment and have accepted responsibility for it. Until this is done, the hand-off is not complete. In American football, it’s called a “fumble.”
  2. Articulate a specific outcome. In other words, what exactly are you expecting the other person to deliver to you or for you. I always start the assignment with a verb (e.g., “Call,” “Notify,” “Write,” “Order,” etc.) and finish it with an objective “deliverable.” You have to be able to tell whether the task was completed as assigned.
  3. Include your delivery timetable. Some projects have hard fast deadlines. For example, I might tell someone I need a task done by “the close of business on Friday.” Others are not as time sensitive. I might say I need a task done, “anytime in the next two weeks.” Regardless, you have to express your expectations and be clear.
  4. Make yourself available for consultation. You want to be a resource, but you don’t want to micro-manage the other person. The best way to do this is to stay focused on the outcome rather than the process. I personally don’t care how the other person gets the job done (assuming it is ethical); I only care about the end-result.
  5. Track the delegated task on a to-do list. This is crucial. Not everyone you delegate to will have a good task management system in place. Perhaps those directly under your supervision will—because you trained them—but what about the others?

There are at least four ways to track delegated assignments:

  1. Use a page in your journal. This is the simplest, most low-tech solution. I used it for years and still know people who prefer it to automated solutions. If you are using a Moleskine Notebook, you can dedicate several pages at the end of the notebook. Divide each page into three-columns. In the first column, note the date you made the assignment. In the second column, note the first name of the person to whom you delegated the task, then the task itself. In the third column, note the due date (if any). I don’t use a due dates unless a specific date is mission-critical.
  2. Use Outlook, Entourage, or Mail folders. Nearly all of the assignments I delegate happen via email. If I make an assignment in a meeting, I follow-up with an email confirmation. Regardless, an easy way to keep track of these assignments is simply to drag a copy of the sent message to a “Waiting For” folder. If you need to check in on the status of a project, you can forward the original message to the person you delegated it to as a reminder of the assignment, and ask them for a progress report. When the task is complete, you can delete the message from the folder.
  3. Use Outlook, Entourage, or Mail tasks. This kicks the level of automation up a notch. It puts your delegated tasks in the same spot that all of your other to-do lists are, so you will be more likely to review them. If you follow David Allen’s methodology as recommended in Getting Things Done (a.k.a., “GTD”), you can set up a “@Waiting For” task category. In the Task field itself, you type the name of the person, a dash, the assignment, another dash, and the date you made the assignment. For example:
    Category Task Due Date
    @Waiting For Lindsey – Notify Andy Andrews contest winners – 7/1 7/6/2010
    @Waiting For Vicki – Renew my Admiral’s Club Membership – 7/7 8/1/2010
    @Waiting For David – Review Jesse Sparks book proposal – 7/6

    If you want to explore this methodology in greater depth, I highly recommend that you buy one of David Allen’s Setup Guides. It will walk you through the process of using GTD on Outlook, Entourage, and Lotus Notes. Even if you use Apple Mail, as I do, you can learn a ton from the Entourage guide.

  4. Use a dedicated task manager. This is the method I personally use now. A dedicated task manager is a more robust tool than any of the ones I have mentioned above. I am personally using Things for Mac. Nozbe is also excellent, as is OmniFocus. There are literally dozens of others. I have written an AppleScript that allows me to delegate a task via email and add it to things automatically as a Waiting For task. (I hope to share this in a future blog post.)

Someone once defined delegation as “the art of getting things done through other people.” This is true, but only if you track the tasks you assign to others and make sure they are completed as assigned.

Question: How have you been managing the tasks you assign to others? What has worked best for you?