J.J. Abrams on Establishing Boundaries

jj-abramsI recently witnessed a manager delegating work without any apparent limits or parameters. At first glance, this seemed liberating. The employee had total freedom to complete the task as she saw fit. Then she came back in the manager’s office for clarification, and back again, and again.

The next day, when I asked her about the experience, she stated all she wanted was a little direction. The manager had a different take; he was trying not to stifle her creativity and, per his ideology, “I hired her because she’s a pro. I shouldn’t have to spoon feed her.” So the question becomes, how much guidance should you give when delegating an assignment? J.J. Abrams might have the answer.

Back in early 2000s’, esteemed director, producer, and screenwriter J.J. Abrams was approached by a network to develop a new show. By this point in his career, Abrams had an impressive litany of successes— Armageddon, Alias, Felicity, Regarding Henry, etc. Regardless, he was not given free rein to present whatever was on his mind… and he prefers it this way. As he told Wired magazine,

I find that I am most happy when I have boundaries. With Lost, when ABC chairman Lloyd Braun called to say he wanted me to come up with a show about people who survive a plane crash, I remember thinking, ‘Well, I will come up with that,’ and I did—very, very quickly. What was great was he had given me a very specific assignment. So when I called him back and told him my thoughts, they were far weirder than what he would have ever expected. He was basically thinking about doing a kind of castaway show. But the constraint he imposed allowed the weirdness to kind of feel like fertile ground. Weirdness within limits, you know? If it had been un-limited—if he had called and said, come up with a weird show—I would have thought, I don’t know! What does that even mean?

“Weirdness within limits.” That might be my new delegation mantra. To provide these limits, leaders must be adept at delegation. This is more than handing off the tasks you don’t want to do. True delegation is an opportunity to build competences, experiment with new techniques, and grow confidence. When delegating, consider the following:

  • Provide context for the project. Explain why it matters, the impact it will have, and how it fits into the larger scheme.
  • Be specific. Your ultimate objective should not be a guessing game. Provide clear purpose for the initiative.
  • Resist the urge to micromanage. If you’re going to allow for freedom of expression, step back so they can express the freedom.
  • Offer focused feedback. If they are getting it wrong, that means they need more of your insight to guide them.
  • Impart positive support. When the project’s done, don’t be stingy with the compliments.

If established genius J.J. Abrams works best with boundaries, why shouldn’t we provide the same consideration to those on our team? You don’t need to present a detailed blueprint, but carte blanche doesn’t work either. With a little direction, you can save a lot of time and frustration, plus you’ll end up with an all-around better product.