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Managers: This is your most powerful tool

Have you ever been given work that was completely different from what you expected? Conversely, have you ever been micromanaged by an overbearing manager who wanted things done exactly a certain way?

The most powerful tool in your toolbox for managing up and managing down is something called "Definition of Done" and is a concept from Scrum that applies to nearly any work situation in any industry and size of company.

Mismatched expectations are where delegation of work most often goes wrong and where micro-managers burn the midnight oil. It is impossible for someone to do a task exactly the way you would do it and sometimes, that's why you hired them. You want a fresh perspective and different skills. Sometimes, these mismatched expectations are a result of insufficient communication. By using 'Definition of Done', you can set clear expectations in advance of an activity.

Where delegation goes wrong

Say you work in the marketing department of a snack food company and you gave someone on your team a request for a competitor analysis for your upcoming product 'seaweed snacks'. That week, they dropped the ball on a number of tasks and they still don't send you the seaweed competitor comparison. You send them a reminder and they ask for 48 more hours. You think that's too much time but you're busy so you say ok, let's discuss it during our 1:1. You show up to the 1:1 and your team member presents a 50 page comparison of all snacks across all price points including regular chips, healthy chips and everything else to your seaweed snack.

You didn't want any of this data, all you wanted was a comparison to the other ~5 seaweed brands in the market within the same price range as your snack. If you're in a bad mood, you may interrupt them, ask them to get to the meat of the discussion and end up feeling frustrated that they wasted so much time. In another version of this story, you wanted the detailed deck but they gave you a lightweight comparison a week later, not realizing how important this task was or how detailed it needed to be. The next time you work with this person, you'll micromanage them so much, they'll feel resentful and frustrated that they lost your trust while trying to do a good job.

With the definition of done, you are able to set expectations about what you want while also clarifying timelines and giving the person autonomy.

Definition of Done

Here's what the task might look like if it were set out clearly:

Context: Require a competitive analysis for our new product pitch to the CEO

Definition of Done:

- Competitive analysis of seaweed snack brands including

- top 3 competitors by market share (revenue) in the US

- market positioning, price point, brand ambassadors, key retailers, flavors, promotions


- Format: Memo preferred

- Time to complete: ~3-4 hour version

- Due on: By next week, Tuesday

- First draft: Let's discuss it on Thursday this week, just rough data and any obstacles you're facing are enough

- Budget: Ideally desk research but we can spend up to ~$1000 on a report or expert call

Do you see a difference between the first version of the task and this version? By stating the definition of done and placing boundaries, you've clarified a vague task and set expectations thus giving this individual constraints within which they can act with autonomy.

Definition of done and these boundaries can be used by you with your own manager to get clarity on expectations for something that's been delegated to your team. You may hesitate at this point, is it childish to lay out something so clearly? If I ask my manager for this information, might they think I'm unable to think this through myself? Instead of asking your manager for the definition of done, why not state it yourself and ask them to clarify if this matches what they're thinking?

Why does this work?

The reason definition of done works is because 90% of the time, managers do not know what they want until they see it and realize that isn't what they wanted. By stating the definition of done in your perspective, you also force your manager to think more deeply about what they want.


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