How to Give Great Instructions

How to Give Great Instructions

Whether at the workplace or when outsourcing, knowing how to give great instructions is crucial to being effective.

If you want to get something done for you, chances are it won't turn out quite the way you imagined. The responsibility could lie with both you or your employee. A great employee can do a lot to make sense of bad instructions – for example, by knowing your previous preferences, or independently researching the aim of the task. Sometimes failure is inevitable: really bad instructions lead to bad results.

We all know someone who can give single-sentence instructions that tell you everything you need to know. Yet the opposite is also possible. So what constitutes great instruction?

1) Indicate your goal. We all want to feel like we are doing something that matters. If you share the goal the task is meant to help accomplish, you can create a great source of motivation, by giving the task meaning and the employee significance. By indicating your aim, you make it easier for the employee to make decisions herself: knowing what the goal is, it is possible to make wise choices without supervision if a dilemma turns up.

You’re doing it wrong: “Please measure these roofs and put the measurements into the attached Excel file.”

You’re doing it right: “Please measure these roofs and put the measurements into the attached Excel file. Knowing how much solar panel there is room for on each roof will make it easier for families to switch to solar power.”

2) Allow iterations. How ready should the first draft or deliverable be: 80 percent or 100 percent?  Our experience tells us that almost all tasks are best done in iterations.

When you allow a task to be submitted at 80 percent completion (or more), you save yourself time while simultaneously insuring yourself from the consequences of bad instructions. In some tasks, getting to 80 percent takes only 50 percent of the time. If the solution is less than ideal, getting the opportunity to change course midway can save you and the organization a lot of time.

3) If you know what you want, be precise. If you don’t, be precise about that, too. As an outsourcing company, we often find instructions to be exactly in between being detailed and being open.

The client has good intentions: she knows what she wants, but she also wants to be open-minded. The result, however, is often a confusing instruction. We find that the best way is to go all in with one direction: either be completely open to our ideas or tell us exactly what you want.

You’re doing it wrong: “If it’s easy, maybe you can make these tables into bar chart or whatever you think is best?”

You’re doing it right: “Make these tables into bar charts using our color codes with the labels on the left-hand side.”

Risk-averse? Ask for both a creative and conservative option! 

Often the best results arise when designers are given freedom to be creative. But even an open mind needs to be precise.

Pro Tip: If you want creativity without the risk, simply ask for an alternative creative version.

You’re doing it wrong: “Can you take a look at this?”

You’re doing it right: “We are presenting these numbers to an audience of statisticians and we want to convey both creativity and intelligence. Could you find a creative way to present these numbers in PowerPoint using our company template? Also, make an alternate version with a simple bar chart.”

4) Shortcut: Instruct by analogy.  Most of what we do in the workplace has been done before or has been done by somebody else. ”Make X presentation like Y presentation, attached” is an effective way to be precise and make the job easier for your employee.

Example: Last week we received a long, standard Word document for a client and she wanted it made "like McKinsey Quarterly, but with our template.” These few words allowed us to make a great product, exactly catered to her needs with no further instructions.

5) Allow the iteration cycle to finish. One of the hardest things our specialists encounter is changing instructions mid-cycle. People often have great reasons for revision, but also underestimate the embedded costs. Usually, a mid-cycle change takes the employee back to square one, while you still feel like he has worked a long time.

If you are forced to change a project mid-cycle, make sure to inform your employee if you know this is a possibility beforehand. When you change it, explain why and increase the deadline accordingly.

Follow these five points and you will become a great coach and a more effective client who uses services, whether internally or externally.

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