How to Delegate When You Don’t Know What You Want

A reader asks:

“How do you delegate a piece of work when you’re not entirely sure what you want? For instance, what if I know that I’m not happy with our progress in a particular area, but I don’t know what we should do about it? Or I might know that we need a new product that does XYZ, but not be sure of anything beyond that. How do I assign work to someone when I’m not clear on what exactly we need?”


We often preach about how delegating starts with being clear about what you want, but this is a case where you need to start by accepting that you aren’t. Then, follow these five steps to figure out what you need.

1. Be transparent. Start by explaining that you’re not entirely sure what the work should look like. By getting this on the table from the start, you’ll prevent your staff member from struggling to understand what your vision is and instead you can focus on figuring out that vision together.

2. Do a brain dump. Try to extract and vocalize everything that’s in your head on the topic. So you might say, “I know it needs to achieve X and Y, and we have be careful in how we handle Z because that’s so sensitive” or “I picture ___ (major funder or ally) reading it and thinking, ‘Wow, this is fascinating.’” If you have any parallels in the back of your head, put them out there too, like, “I know we need it to pop like the Wisconsin website did.”

3. Put your heads together. After you’ve laid bare all the thoughts in your head, ask your staff member to simply brainstorm with you. You might find that while you couldn’t identify exactly what you need, your staff member can, or that it emerges through your discussion.

4. Delegate the final figuring-out. Ask your staff member to think about everything you’ve discussed and then come back to you with a proposal for how to move forward. And don’t be shy about making process suggestions here if you have them – “start by talking to Joanna,” “make sure to address how we’d market it,” and so forth.

5. Finally, check in earlier than you normally would. Even once you have a plan, check back in earlier than you normally would, to double-check that your staff member has defined the problem correctly, that you haven’t changed your mind or had further thoughts in the meantime, and that you’re aligned about the plan for tackling it.