Five reasons why I’m experimenting with outsourcing to virtual assistants

| kaizen, management

My experiments with outsourcing amuse some people and raise questions for others. It’s difficult for most people (including me!) to give up control and delegate tasks to other people. We’re not used to it, and we don’t have many opportunities to explore it.

A friend of mine asked me recently if I found that I needed to have many of my outsourced tasks re-done. Out of the 58 tasks I’ve reviewed so far, I needed to ask for four tasks to be completely re-done (or I found it easier to just fix it myself), and I had minor quibbles about the way six were done. That’s 7% redoing, 10% minor tweaking, and 83% totally happy with the results. Not bad, and the ratio will get even better as I learn more about delegation and as I make more of my processes explicit. I’m also very happy with the work I’ve delegated to my Philippine-based virtual assistants, which tends to be more about research or ongoing work.

As I reflected on my outsourcing experiment, I realized that I’m doing it for a number of reasons that might not be immediately obvious to people.

1. I can optimize my energy, kickstart tasks, and enjoy a little leverage on time.

The time savings are obvious to people, but for me, energy is the biggest factor here. There are some tasks that I don’t particularly enjoy doing, and some tasks I feel almost anxious about doing. Being able to delegate those tasks to someone else lets me focus on what I’m passionate about and minimizes interruptions when I’m concentrating. It’s also helpful for kickstarting tasks that I’ve been procrastinating. Someone else provides the initial energy – looking up numbers, putting together some links – and then I can work on improving the results. This is similar to the way first drafts are hard to put together, but easy to revise. And I can spend five minutes delegating tasks that would’ve taken me an hour to do, giving me just a little leverage on my time.

2. I can learn to scale even further.

We all have the same amount of time each day. If I want to make the most difference I can, I’ll need to either become a solo genius (think Tesla) or learn how to harness the power of others (think Edison). There’s a limit to how productive I can be by myself, and besides, I enjoy learning from other people in the process of working with them. So, if I learn how to tap the strengths of other people, I can scale up beyond the limits of my own time and energy.

3. I can refine my processes.

As I try to delegate more and more processes, I find myself describing them and reflecting on how to do them more effectively. This helps me be more productive, it helps my assistants be more productive, and it helps other people be more productive, too.

4. I can learn how to delegate in a safe environment.

If I’ll need to learn how to delegate in order to accomplish a bigger difference, I might as well learn how to do so in a low-risk setting. Many people learn about management when they become managers, which is difficult because they’re held accountable for real business goals. Outsourcing to virtual assistants lets me learn about delegation and management in a setting that simplifies many of the factors (I don’t have to worry about HR too much, for example) and lets me experiment with low-risk tasks. If I incorrectly specify a task, I’m only risking some Web research, not a big project. Think of this as an MBA on steroids, because even in an MBA program, you don’t really delegate tasks to your classmates or hold yourself responsible for making sure things get done. ;)

It’s like programming, too. I’m good at giving computers specific instructions to get the result I want, and I enjoy breaking problems down and coming up with solutions. I’m also good at understanding complex systems and holding them in my head, where I might not remember all the details but I’ll remember the relationships between components and I can figure out how to build something so that it blends in with existing structures and processes. What if I can get better at giving people specific instructions, and holding those complex systems in my head too? And just like programming, I won’t be able to do it well right away. I needed to write a lot of wrong programs (unintentionally, of course!) in order to get better at debugging them and learn about common pitfalls. As I learn more about delegation, I’m sure I’ll make mistakes–but that’s all part of the learning experience.

5. I can develop characteristics of leadership.

This brings to mind two interesting points from books I’ve recently read. One of the insights in Managing with Power that I found surprising can be found on page 73 and 74:

Not only do we overattribute power to personal characteristics, but often the characteristics we believe to be sources of power are almost plausibly the consequences of power instead.

Without, for the moment, denying that these characteristics are associated with being powerful and politically effective, consider the possibility that at least some of them result from the experience of being in power. Are we likely to be more articulate and poised when we are more powerful? Are we likely to be more popular? Isn’t it plausible that power causes us to be extroverted, as much as extroversion makes us powerful? Aren’t more powerful and politically effetive people likely to be perceived as more competent?

Jeffrey Pfeffer, Managing with Power
(thanks to Ian Garmaise for the recommendation; it’s an interesting book, well worth a read)

Now combine that thought with the thesis of Bringing Out the Best in Others (Thomas K. Connellan), which is that firstborns are statistically overrepresented among leaders due to a combination of high expectations, early accountabilitiy, and good feedback. That makes sense. Older kids are often asked to take care of younger kids, and so on. (Thanks to W- for checking that book out for me from the library!)

I’m the youngest of three sisters, so I never needed to take responsibility for my siblings, and they certainly wouldn’t hear of me delegating anything to them. ;) I don’t need to wait for anyone to give me authority so that I can learn how to delegate, though. I can invest time and money into learning that myself, so that I can learn how to build bigger things in the future. =) The more I practice, perhaps the more confident I’ll be, the more my analytical and communication skills will improve–which could lead to more opportunities to practice, and so on.

So it’s not just about saving five minutes here and there, or helping redistribute resources to developing countries (although that’s part of the reason why I’ve hired some virtual assistants from the Philippines). It’s all part of an Evil Plan. I mean an Awesome Plan. ;)

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