Tag Archives: delegation

It’s Different Work

Reggie was not defensive, but he was certainly pushing back. “It’s something I like to do,” he said. “Besides, it’s a half hour out of my day. Not something I want to delegate to someone else.”

“Are you saying, it’s something that gives meaning and purpose to your life?” I asked.

“Updating the WIP logs?” he chuckled. “I get the paperwork (electronic paperwork) in from the field. I know it is a bit clerical, but when I enter the data into the logs, I don’t know, it makes me feel good. Like I am really getting something done. Like marking things off on a checklist.”

“You are very results oriented, that’s why you were promoted to manager,” I replied. “You like to kick things off, get people moving, get things done, mark things in the WIP logs, you love to watch results, makes you feel connected to the work. You get endorphin juice.”

Reggie nodded. “You’re right. When I get the logs updated, I feel like I am in control, that the world is right. I do get a little juice out of the task.”

“Your work is different now. As a manager, your juice comes through other people, and it’s slower. It’s painful, to watch other people struggle through things that are easy for you. Your role now is to help other people feel in control, by getting them to mark progress, coaching them to the end of the project. If you continue to be intimately involved, you prevent your team from learning the details. You disable the team from organizing their work. They need your help, support and guidance, but they don’t need you to do it for them.”

Learning From Mistakes

Janet was not convinced. “But, if I know they will make a mistake, what if I can’t afford the screw-up? Perhaps, I forgot to tell you that we work in a nuclear facility and this delegation has to do with moving a dollop of plutonium from one reactor to the next.”

I smiled, knowing the most hazardous waste in the place was some scrap stainless steel. “You are correct,” I acknowledged. “Picking the right person for a delegation does have everything to do with risk management. If the stakes are too high, then you may have to forego a learning experience to get the job done. But if this dollop of plutonium turns out to be a dollop of vanilla ice cream, then the risk is low. The lower the risk, the more I can allow for mistakes and learning.”

“So, picking the person depends on managing the risk. That makes more sense,” Janet nodded.

“Think about how we allow people to learn to fly commercial aircraft. They have to make mistakes to learn, yet the risk is very high. We can’t have people crashing multi-million dollar aircraft.”

Janet smiled. “Enter the simulator?”

“Exactly. People learn best from their mistakes.”

Said He Was Too Busy

“I was surprised,” said Janet. “Barry is my best guy. I just assigned him a task and he said he was too busy, told me to go find someone else. He always does such a great job. I thought he would be the perfect person.”

“Who else could you delegate to?” I asked.

“Well, there is Simon and Rachel. But what if they screw it up?” Janet scrunched her nose. She didn’t like the idea.

“Janet, what is the purpose for your delegation? Are you looking to save yourself some time or are you looking to develop some of your team members?”

Janet knew it was a loaded question. “Okay, so I am trying to develop some of my team members. I know it’s a learning process.” It was the kind of unenthusiastic, politically correct response I knew I would get.

“Good answer. You must have attended the seminar,” I chided. “Look, Janet, of course they are going to screw it up. Tell me. Do people learn more from doing something perfectly or making a mistake?”

Janet wasn’t sure where I was going with this. “I suppose people learn more from making a mistake.”

“Exactly. If delegation is your most powerful people development tool, then part of delegation is people making mistakes. Count on it. Plan for it. Budget your time for it. But remember that it’s still worth it. That’s what learning is all about.”

Mama Told Me

“My mother taught me that if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself,” proclaimed Judith, repeating the sage advice she learned in her youth.

“Interesting,” I replied. “Why do you think your mother said that?”

“Well, people just never do things the way we expect them to be done.”

“And, why is that?” I wanted to know. “Why do you think they might miss the quality standard?”

“I don’t know,” Judith replied. “I tell ’em what to do, they just fall short.”

“Did you explain what the project should look like when it’s done?” I pressed.

Judith paused. “I just told them to get it done.”

“So you told them what to do, but not how well or by when?”

“Shoudn’t they be able to figure that out?” Judith sighed.

“I assume they did figure it out, it’s just what they figured is different than what you figured. Didn’t your mother also tell you if you don’t like what’s for dinner, you should say something sooner?”

Gauge the Risk

Aaron was in a pickle. He was a firm believer that, as a manager, delegation was his most powerful people development tool, but he was uncomfortable with the possible outcome. If this delegation failed, it could be disastrous. His dilemma was “who?” Who should he pick to head this project?

His top gun was reliable, but always overloaded with work. Aaron wanted to spread the responsibility to a young, up and comer, but this would be a stretch, with the distinct possibility of failure.

Selecting the right team member is the absolute toughest step in delegation. The manager can do everything else correctly, but if the wrong person is chosen, success may be fleeting.

Selecting the right person is a process of risk management. If the purpose of delegation is people development, and understanding that people learn the most from their mistakes, risk management becomes the rule of thumb to determine who gets the nod.

If you work in a nuclear power plant, you have to pick your top gun every time. If you run an ice cream shop, you can afford the occasional misstep. Gauge the risk, then pick the person.

Friday at 5:00p

Kyle wheeled around into the sun, cupping his hand over his eyes to see who was calling his name. It was Barry, his manager. Friday afternoon at 5:00, and it was Barry. Again. Kyle already knew what was coming.

“Hey, Kyle,” said Barry as he stepped up his pace. “Listen, I was just wondering if you could do me a favor on Monday. I have this project that I’ve been trying to wrap-up and I am just jammed. I know it would be extra work for you, but I really need your help. It has to be finished by noon on Monday and I just can’t get it done.”

And Barry wondered why Kyle was never excited about things he tried to delegate.

There are two purposes for delegation. One is time management, the other is people development. Delegating for time management is okay, but short sighted. The longer term purpose for delegation is people development.

So, if the true purpose for delegation is development, it is important enough to schedule a real meeting, with committed time in an appropriate room over a conference table. Plan ahead.

If you haven’t planned ahead, and it’s Friday at 5:00pm, you already blew it. Just go home. Have a beer. Come back next week with a better plan.

Short List

I watched Vincent drop everything on his desk and excuse himself. From the corner window, he spotted the postal carrier bringing a bag of mail from her truck. Vincent was a senior partner in the firm and he was on his way to the reception desk to perform his daily ritual, sorting the mail. Twenty minutes later, he would return, announcing that eight clients had sent in payments that day. Sure enough, he had neatly stacked the eight envelopes for the receptionist to deliver to accounting.

Think about something you do that meets the following characteristics, make a quick list –

  • A task that you perform repetitively.
  • A task that you enjoy doing.
  • A task that is important to the organization.

I often hear the refrain, “I’m not really sure what I can delegate to someone else.” Now, take a look at your list. Any task that you perform on a repetitive basis is a candidate. You may have overlooked this task because it is something that you enjoy. You may have even justified this task as important to the organization. Look at your list again. What can you delegate?

Learning Something New

What stops us from learning?

It’s not the complexity of the content, or how much there is to learn. The obstacles to learning most often exist in the head of the learner. Obstacles are more about beliefs and assumptions than the details of what has to be learned.

We learn to delegate effectively, not by learning a new delegation model, but by ridding ourselves of the assumption, if you want it done right, do it yourself. We hold back on sharing problem solving, not because the team members lacks the skills, but because there is a lack of trust. We hold back on sharing decision making, not because the team member is unable to make the decision, but because we, as managers, have always made that judgment call.

What stops us from learning is often, something inside our own head.

Subtle Pushback

“He resists everything,” Ruben explained. “We cover the same solutions to the same problems. At the time, Edmund finally agrees, but I sense, he agrees only because he can’t argue the logic. He goes along with the solution, but two weeks later, the same problem pops up and we start all over again.”

“So, you have to step in and it takes up your time?” I asked.

“Worse than that. It’s almost underhanded. Behind the scenes, it’s like he wants the solution to fail. He doesn’t openly sabotage the new method, and I haven’t caught him bad-mouthing the process. Sometimes, it’s just the way he rolls his eyes in the meeting.”

Decisions at Every Level of Work

“You said that if the manager is held accountable for the output of the team, the manager might take better care in selection?” I asked.

Pablo nodded. “It does no good to bring someone on board without the capability for the work, only to later blame that person for underperformance.”

“If that is the case,” I picked up the unspoken question, “then why do managers struggle finding the right fit for the role.”

“They struggle,” Pablo replied, “because they rarely sit down and figure out the work. Most managers see work as a series of task assignments. Do this, do that. No more. Following the task assignment, the manager often asks, ‘So, do you know what to do?'”


“You see, it slips by so easily. That question barely begs understanding. The question from the manager should more properly be, ‘In completing this task assignment, what decisions will you have to make? What problems will you have to solve?’ Most managers miss that completely.”

“But, if the team member knows what to do, what decisions are left?”

“See, even you, my most aware friend, have overlooked discretion built into the work. There is always appropriate decision making at every level of work. Take a fork lift driver, and a pallet to be moved from point A to point B,” Pablo laid out.

“I got it.”

“Do you?” Pablo pushed back. “What decisions are to be made by the forklift driver?”

“It’s obvious,” I said. “Am I moving the right pallet to where it needs to be placed?”

“You’re right, that is the obvious question,” Pablo started. “And, let’s look at some other questions, any one of which could create failure.

  • How heavy is the pallet?
  • Is the pallet properly balanced?
  • Is my forklift rated to handle the weight of the load?
  • Will the size of the pallet, plus a safety buffer, clear the designated pathway to location B?
  • Are there unanticipated obstacles that might temporarily be blocking the pathway?
  • Are there any over height restrictions to the movement?
  • Will this move require flag walkers during movement?
  • Is the forklift in operating order?
  • Are all safety signals, warning lights and sounds operating?
  • Am I wearing appropriate PPE during the move?
  • Is the designated point B a permanent location within a specified perimeter? Or a temporary staging area that must be flagged for safety?”

“Okay, okay,” I laughed. “I get it.”

“Most managers rarely sit down and figure it out,” Pablo was adamant. “What’s the work? What decisions have to be made? What problems have to be solved?”