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A guide to delegating

I have posted this before, and for some reason it is not that interesting to folks. But—it is interesting to me. And this is why:

  • Delegating is hard; intending to delegate is easy.

Delegation represents a critical step between being the one who “wears all hats”, to the one who starts to expand out, and extend his or her influence beyond their own efforts. As Michael Gerber pointed out in The E-Myth, the wearing of all hats is probably one of the greatest impediments to creating the freedom we want in our businesses (although at first, it is perhaps necessary).

Anyway, here it is.

How to Delegate

Notes by Chris Burbridge

Drawn from How to Delegate, by Robert Heller,
along with other sources, as well as my own observations.

Why Delegate?

Learning to delegate means developing a skill that provides you more leverage over time—influence, power, advantage.

Benefits:

  • You get to focus on what you are best at, and what you love to do, finding others to do things you don’t like or aren’t good at
  • You increase your time to focus on things that others can’t do—core, strategic work. This will increase your leverage also.
  • You create a resource base of people who are reliable and familiar with you, to help you when you need it.
  • You propagate your knowledge and skill to others. In doing so, you take on a mentoring role, which establishes you as an authority.
  • You extend the influence of your efforts, ideas, and views over a wider area.
  • You provide value by giving training and structure to those who need it.

To build the skill of delegation creates a virtuous cycle where you have more time for strategic thinking, which will further increase your power. Contrast this with the vicious cycle of trying to be everything to everyone, and possibly burning out The former gives you long-term gains, which increase over time; the latter gives you the appearance of short-term gains, but drives you farther away from longer term gains.

Developing People

Don’t just think of delegating as “getting people to do tasks for you”. Think of it as developing people—you are helping them to build their skills and their ability to help you (and therefore, others as well). Thus you are in service to them, as they are in service to you. You are in a mutual relationship of learning, where you are both improving your skills in working together, and making the process go smoothly.

It is you who are in charge of running the process of delegation well—and when it doesn’t run well, it’s you who needs to improve your skills in doing so—not the other person, for “doing it wrong”.

Psychologically, delegating tasks requires letting go of control, and an appreciation for the autonomy of others. You have to learn how to let people grow and be themselves, while also giving them positive feedback that lets them know when things are working, and when they’re not.

You need to give appreciation regularly, and let people know they are valued. At the same time, you need to be very clear about what the requirements are. Mostly, these will involve outcomes—although to some degree, they might also involve methods of doing things. In addition to how well the delegate performs the actual tasks, their ability also includes things like clear communication, emotional maturity, and the ability to say when they don’t know something.

You need to create an encouraging but very clear environment, where it’s easy to be successful, and people feel like they can be themselves, make mistakes from time to time, or not know something. Let them know it’s all right not to know—and much better to say so, than to pretend to be perfect. Let them know mistakes are human, and being able to admit them is the important part.

(At the same time, for technical work, it might be very important to train delegates to go over their work more than they naturally do, to reduce the rate of error. That, in itself, is a habit that is not necessarily learned in school.)

Remember that developing people means they may not be as fast as you would be, and they may need help in bringing things to the level you would. This is part of what it means to develop people. At the same time, you should be developing people who it makes sense to develop—assess whether someone is a reasonable person to develop, for a particular set of tasks.

Delegation Steps

These steps are from the book DK Essential Managers: How to Delegate, by Robert Heller (with my notes added).

  1. Organize the tasks to be delegated, and sort into logical groupings.
  2. Select the delegate(s) for task group(s).
  3. Prepare the project brief(s).
  4. Align with the delegate(s), using the brief as a tool.
  5. Monitor the progress, through regular reporting, controls, and check-ins (depending on the situation).
  6. Analyze the results, and see what can be improved next time.

1. Organize the Tasks

Before you delegate anything, ask yourself:

  • Does it need to be done at all?
  • If so, proceed.

Group tasks to be done by the skills that are required. Outline them, and give rough estimates of how long you think the tasks should take.

2. Select the Delegate

Find the right person for the job. Know that you are developing people, but be real about developing people from where they are, as opposed to expecting them to be a super-man or super-woman.

Along with technical skill, you should look for a balance of good general qualities, like the following.

General Qualities to Look For in a Delegate

Honesty. Ability to admit mistakes, comfort to say what they don’t know; care for the success of the project, over just looking good themselves.

Maturity. When emotional charge occurs in a situation, an immature person will ignore the charge or create blame; a more mature person will note it, and move beyond it, with kindness.

Initiative. Seeing beyond the immediate, robotic task, to a bigger picture perspective of making sure the results are good.

Accountability. A determination to meet deadlines, and other forms of agreement.

Communicativeness. While independence is good, and the ability to be a “self-starter” and do things on their own is good, you want people who are a bit of a “squeaky wheel” when it comes to things like: Letting you know about issues they’re having trouble with; questions about how the work is to be done; or any concerns about timing of the work.

Self-Correction. When they make a mistake, they admit it and correct it—rather than to protect it, and armor themselves around it.

Look for people who have these basic qualities, and you can cultivate them further in them.

Setting Everyone Up for Success

To set everyone up for success is to win, to feel good about the process, and want to do more. Consider that everyone is different, and take the time to consider how the delegate will work with your tasks.

  • Some people are wonderfully responsible, but a bit unrealistic about how long things take.
  • Some people want to please you, so they will say they can do things they can’t.

People are complex. They can function great in one situation, and poorly in another. If someone is new to you, it’s important that you consider your initial work with you as a test. Don’t give them mission-critical things to do.

Therefore:

  • When you’re not used to working with someone, give them simple tasks that can act as a “test”, to see about their skill level, accountability, and general ease of working with you. It can be good to call it a “try out”, or give the relationship a time limit; then, it won’t be as weird if you decide not to continue working with them.

Base the degree of check-ins, reporting, and other alignments upon how much you’ve worked together, and what you know about what the person needs to be successful.

3. Prepare the Brief

Create a written brief that will outline the following:

Desired Outcomes

Precisely, what are the outcomes? What will success look like? How will it be measured?

Required Skills and Experience

List the specific skills, experience, and other forms of knowledge that you believe are required for a person to be successful at helping you. (During the alignment phase, you can have them indicate their level of comfort with these skills.)

Tools Required

These can be specific tools, or types of tool—software, hardware, implements, etc.

Required Access

If access codes, logins, etc., are required—add them here.

Methodologies Required

In general, you are letting the delegate do things his or her way. But in some cases, it’s very important that certain standards are adhered to—for example, coding standards, so list these here.

Task Checklist

Prepare a detailed level of task specificity and detail. Link these carefully to the Outcomes section.

Timing

The timing requirements for the work. When does it need to be done by? What are the deliverable milestones?

Reporting/Monitoring

Set up a plan of communication with the delegate, appropriate for the work, the delegate, and your level of experience in working with them.

These might include:

  • Regular meetings to report back and see how things are going
  • Regular times for the delegate to report what has been done
  • Daily reporting of what was done (here’s a handy tool: idonethis.com/)
  • “Management by exception”—Have them tell you when something did not go according to pattern

Spell it all out. Set up milestones, meetings, conditions—whatever you feel is necessary.

Encourage them to communicate. Declare when you will be available (mornings before 10, Tuesday through Friday after noon, etc.), and what forms of communication are best to reach you (email, SMS, IM, phone, face-to-face, etc.).  This will further give them the feeling that you want to hear from them, which will help to reduce the delay time in hearing when they have questions. (Also, make an effort to respond promptly to questions, as this will increase their confidence in communicating with you, as well as keeping the project moving along.)

Delivery Format, Method, and Timing

Delivery of work. What format will the work be delivered in? Will it be delivered in interim steps as well? If so, how?

Consequences of Failure

It could be good to let the delegate know what the consequences of the work not getting done in time are. Is it, “our client’s website may have typing errors”? Or, “our client’s website will not be able to be launched in time”? Or, “our client’s website will explode.”? By telling someone why they are doing something—and the consequences of failure or success—you empower them to be more responsible.

Pay Agreements (for Contractors)

Set up fee and pay agreements, if working with contractors. If you’re paying an hourly rate, you may also want to include controls that prevent work from getting out of control—e.g., “maximum billing for this task at 15 hours”.

Signatures or Other Written Agreement

You should have a place for signatures. Never commence any work without getting alignment first (see next step). In some cases, written agreement can consist of an email indicating that both parties agree to the brief. You will not actually sign this until you’ve aligned with the delegate, below.

4. Align with the Delegate

The project brief is an alignment document. Without a clear conversation where you are able to take the required time to outline the requirements and conditions for success, you have nothing. Therefore, present the brief to the delegate, and go over it with them. Make sure they are clear. Explain to them the idea of “Slow Down for Yellow Lights”.

Slow Down for Yellow Lights

This is a concept from the wonderful book Let’s Get Real, or Let’s Not Play, by Mahan Khalsa. What it says is that when we are agreeing on things together, we tend to overlook areas where we might have a lack of clarity, or a different understanding of things. It’s easy to say to ourselves things like:

  • “I’m not exactly sure what he means there—but that’s all right, I’m sure it will all work out, and I’ll figure it out as I go.”
  • “I’m not sure if she’s giving me enough time—but I don’t want to sound slow, so I’m not going to say anything and I’ll just eat the time and work super late if I have to.”

This is equally true for you doing the delegating as it is for the delegate. You might be unsure if they’ll really be able to perform a certain skill, but ignore that information because you don’t want to offend them. You have to take the time to go over this concept with the delegate, because this will short-circuit their conditioning to ignore such things, and give permission to slow down until alignment really feels right.

If you are not sure of their abilities, you could have them go through the list of skills, methodologies, and honestly rank their confidence level in performing each one. Emphasize that you’re not looking for perfect people, you’re looking for honest people, who are able to discern where their strengths are, and where they are not as strong.

Go Over the Elements of the Brief

Take the time to talk over all the elements of the brief. Go slow enough that the delegate, or you, have a chance to “slow down for yellow lights.” When one comes up, appreciate it—encouraging the care required to make modifications, clarify things, or pause and re-work them until they feel right.

And if a yellow light turns out to become a “red” light—no problem. It’s better to find out now, that this delegate is not the right person for this job, than to find out later. Part friends, and let them know that they are now more valuable to you, because you know that they’re honest and reliable, which are rare qualities, and you can try to use them for something else.

Make Changes to the Brief If Necessary

Here is where you make any changes that have come up in the conversation with the delegate.

Both Agree in Written Form

If it’s happening, agree here, either by signing, or at least very unambiguously saying that you agree to the brief over email.

Things that Were Not Discussed Were Not “Really” Signed

I have learned that merely having someone write their name at the bottom of a paper is no indication (surprisingly!) that they have read and understood what they have signed. In a practical sense, if you have not had a conversation such as this one, and signed at the end of that conversation, you have not made a practical alignment and agreement.

5. Monitor the Progress

Do it. This is spelled out in the brief, above.

6. Analyze Results

At the end, sit down with the delegate, and note how it went.

  • What went well?
  • What would they do differently next time?
  • Were there any parts of the delegation process they’d like to see go differently?

Make notes, and improve the process for later.

That’s it! Hope it was helpful.

 


So, what's you're experience with delegation? Has it worked for you, or have you been frustrated? Please leave a comment below, and let me know!