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Advice for the Time-Bound

There are times when you know you should involve others in a

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Advice for the Time-Bound There are times when you know you should involve others in a decisio
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decision, but you absolutely have to make a decision by a certain

time. Tn these cases, consider selecting a fallback decision-making

plan .

For example, you could announce: “We have a critical deci­

sion 1 0 make that affect s all of us, and it must be made by ten




sharp. I propose that we use consensus to decide. However, if by

9:45 we have not come to consensus, then it will become a con­

sult decision. I will use your input, and I will decide.”

This strategy allows you to try for the optimum decision-mak­

ing method, but it leaves you a back door without making you

look like a despot when time runs out.



Now let’s take a look at the final step. You’ve engaged in healthy

dialogue, filled the pool of meaning, decided how you’re going

to draw from the pool, and eventually come to some decisions.

It’s time to do something. Some of the items may have been

completely resolved during the discussion, but many may

require a person or team to do something. You’ll have to make

assignmen ts.

As you might suspect, when you’re involved with two or more

people, there’s a chance that there will be some confusion. To

avoid common traps, make sure you consider the following four


• Who?

• Does what?

• By when?

• How will you follow up?


To quote an English proverb, “Everybody’s business is nobody’s

business .” If you don’t make an actual assignment to an actual

person, there’s a good chance that nothing will ever come of all

the work you’ve gone through to make a decision.




When it’s time to pass out assignments, remember, there is no

“we.” “We,” when it comes to assignments, actually means, “not

me.” It’s code. Even when individuals are not trying to duck an

assignment, the term “we” can lead them to believe that others

are taking on the responsibility.

Assign a name to every responsibility. This especially applies

at home. If you’re divvying up household chores, be sure you’ve

got a specific person to go with each chore. That is, if you assign

two or three people to take on a task, appoint one of them the

responsible party. Otherwise, any sense of responsibility will be

lost in a flurry of finger-pointing later on.

Does What?

Be sure to spell out the exact deliverables you have in mind. The

fuzzier the expectations, the higher the likelihood of disappoint­

ment. For example, the eccentric entrepreneur Howard Hughes

once assigned a team of engineers to design and build the world’s

first steam-powered car. When sharing his dream of a vehicle that

could run on heated water, he gave them virtually no direction.

After several years of intense labor the engineers successfully

produced the first prototype by running dozens of pipes through

the car’s body-thus solving the problem of where to put all the

water required to run a steam-powered car. The vehicle was

essentially a giant radiator.

When Hughes asked the engineers what would happen if the

car got into a wreck, they nervously explained that the passen­

gers would be boiled alive, much like lobsters in a pot. Hughes

was so upset in what the crew came up with that he insisted they

cut it up into pieces no larger than three inches. That was the

cnd of the project.

Lcarn from Hughes. When you’re first agreeing on an assign­

mcnt, c lari fy up front the exact details of what you want.




Couples get into trouble in this area when one of the parties

doesn’t want to take the time to think carefully about the “deliv­

erables” and then later on becomes upset because his or her

unstated desires weren’t met. Have you ever remodeled a room

with a loved one? Then you know what we’re talking about.

Better to spend the time up front clarifying exactly what you want

rather than waste resources and hurt feelings on the back end.

To help clarify deliverables, use Contrasting. If you’ve seen

people misunderstand an assignment in the past, explain the

common mistake as an example of what you don’t want. If pos­

sible, point to physical examples. Rather than talk in the

abstract, bring a prototype or sample. We learned this particular

trick when hiring a set designer. The renowned designer talked

about what he would deliver, and it sounded great to us. Twenty­

five thousand dollars later he delivered something that would

never work. We had to start over from scratch. From that day on

we’ve learned to point to pictures and talk about what we want

and don’t want. The clearer the picture of the deliverable, the

less likely you’ll be unpleasantly surprised.

By When?

It’s shocking how often people leave this element out of an

assignment. Instead of giving a deadline, people simply point to

the setting sun of “someday.” With vague or unspoken deadlines,

other urgencies come up, and the assignment finds its way to the

bottom of the pile, where it is soon forgotten. Assignments with­

out deadlines are far better at producing guilt than stimulating

action. Goals without deadlines aren’t goals; they’re merely


How Wi l l You Fol low Up?

Always agree on how often and by what method you’ll follow up

on the assignment. It could be a simple email confirming the




completion of a project. It might be a full report in a team or

family meeting. More often than not, it comes down to progress

checks along the way.

It’s actually fairly easy to build follow-up methods into the

assignment. For example: “Call me on my cell phone when you

finish your homework. Then you can go play with friends.


Or perhaps you’ll prefer to rely on milestones: “Let me know

when you’ve completed your library research. Then we’ll sit down

and look at the next steps.” Milestones, of course, must be linked

to a drop-dead date. “Let me know as soon you’ve completed the

research component of this project. You’ve got until the last week

in November, but if you finish earlier, give me a call.”

Remember, if you want people to feel accountable, you must

give them an opportunity to account. Build an expectation for

follow-up into every assignment.

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