Initiative vs. Following Instructions


I currently have 4 “virtual assistants” on ::oDesk(“a”):: (by VA I mean personal assistant, programmer, designer, etc.) and each has very different degrees of skills and the ability to know exactly what I want from them.

I’ve also worked with many different virtual assistants over the years. Each has had very diverse skills, experience, and personalities (much of which I’ve found can be formed by local culture). One of the things I’ve struggled with is finding the perfect balance between a virtual assistant that takes the right amount of initiative… not too much, and not too little.

What do I mean? Well, I’ve found that in some cases, initiative and following explicit instructions can be mutually exclusive. Still not sure what I mean? Maybe a few examples will help from two virtual personal assistants I had last year:

Example 1) Explicit Direction Following – This VA would methodically read all the directions I sent him and would follow each on to a perfect T! If I had a spelling mistake in a form letter, he’d send it out (knowing it was spelled wrong). If I had him doing customer support he would answer every single email exactly how I instructed… which was great if I had provided instructions. In cases that I hadn’t written explicit instructions he would wait for me to tell him exactly how to respond to the question. Even in cased I felt he could easily answer, he wouldn’t take initiative without explicit instructions. It seemed he didn’t want to risk doing anything other than EXACTLY what I explicitly instructed. If there was even a tiny question about how to proceed he’d wait to begin the project until I was able to return answers to all his detailed question. This often meant another 48 hours added to the start of the project because of the different time zones. I found myself saying, “Gosh man! Take some initiative!”

Example 2) Too Much Initiative – My second VA was almost completely opposite. A very similar skill set as the first, but approached instructions in a very different manner. I’d send over a project and before I knew it, the project was under way. She worked quickly to accomplish the tasks set in front of her. She’d even try to anticipate my needs and insert a few of her own ideas into the completion of the project. I really admired her initiative, but she occasionally missed the mark causing more work for me or needing the project to be done again “correctly”. I found myself saying, “Dang it… just follow my instructions!”

Of course you will eventually find that hidden treasure of a VA that possesses the perfect skillset, experience, and balance of following instructions and initiative. I’m lucky that I think I currently have a virtual assistant like this. Here’s just one example of how he’s struck this balance:

One of the biggest tasks for my VA’s is to do customer support for one of my websites. I have about 20 pre-defined questions / answers for him to use in answering questions (yes, we have an FAQ, but we can’t get 100% of our customers to read them no matter how much we try to force them to read it). In the beginning he answered questions exactly as I instructed and any other questions he’s escalate to me. As I answered the escalated questions he’d read and learn and incorporate these into his support. There was one question he escalated to me and I answered. He then started answering the questions himself. Here’s the best part: After about 15 times receiving and answering the same question over and over he took perfect initiative and added the question and answer to our FAQ system and sent me a note asking that I review it. WOW!

Do you want a virtual assistant that does exactly what you instruct and not deviate, or one that will use take initiative and run through a project while anticipating what you want done? If you’re like me, you want the perfect balance.

So, what’s your experience?