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How often do you think you’ve clearly communicated a request to your direct reports, only to find out that the results are not what you need?

Some people blame it on the “Curse of Knowledge” – it makes perfect sense to you because you know exactly what you’re looking for, but it doesn’t make sense to people who do not live in your head! But don’t discount the common issue that arises when you don’t know why you need the result and the expectation of what you will do with it.

In his book, The Jelly Effect: How to Make Your Communication Stick, author Andy Bounds describes this concept as “afters”. Afters defines what a person or audience’s future need from the result of a request is. For example, when I ask my CFO to give me a report on last year’s sales compared to the previous two years, I don’t need a report. I need to understand how my company has grown over the past three years, recognize seasonal sales trends, and be able to intelligently predict future sales growth projections. I say I want a report, but “afters” understands why I need that report and what I will do with the information provided in it.

“Curse of Knowledge” will tell you “Of course, my CFO understands this is what I need – why else would I ask for it?” In this simple example that may be true. But, what if my CFO put together a spreadsheet with some total numbers at the bottom and sent it over to me? What would I do with it? How would I use that information? I would probably send it back to her and ask for some data visualizations to help me better understand the data.

When you engage in this back and forth communication, not only are you wasting your own time, but you’re also expending the energy, time, and motivation of your team by making them re-do work needlessly. Before I make a request from my direct reports – particularly one that I know is going to take a bit of time to achieve – I find that it is worth a minute or two of my time to answer these questions:

  1. Why do I need the result of this request?
  2. How will the result of this request contribute to the success of the company?
  3. What will I (realistically) do with the result of this request?
  4. How is successful completion of this request defined?

When you’re responsible for getting the most out of your team, be very careful you don’t just delegate tasks, but talk about the afters of the task. Practicing this will eliminate the frustration and expense of needlessly doing the work twice.

But this process isn’t just for us as leaders. Coach your employees on how to ask future-based questions of you and their direct managers to better understand the afters of their tasks as well. With everyone working toward delivering on afters rather than on tasks, your team will be working at a much higher level of productivity and job satisfaction.

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