Five Questions and Answers On Delegation

by Krishna on February 21, 2007

To be really effective in your work, one must learn to do the following:

  1. Cancel tasks that do not have any value.
  2. If any remaining tasks can be delegated, move them to someone else.
  3. Then, prioritize the remaining ones in order of importance and urgency.
  4. Start working on the tasks in order of priority.

The more one can delegate, the more one can focus on important items, increasing the value created. So, let us talk about delegation. Here are some common questions and misconceptions I hear about delegation:

Question: I can do the work better than “X”. Why should I delegate to him/her?

This is usually true about any work that you plan to delegate. You got the task in the first place because you could do it. If you have someone to delegate to, it is very likely that the other person is less experienced than you and probably reporting to you. The question is not whether “X” can do the work better. The right question is: Whether X can do it well enough? Don’t get hung up on perfection.

What you should do though is make the “acceptance criteria” clear. This means what measures would you apply to the person’s work to qualify whether the task is complete. For example, you may assert that a report must be at least 10 pages, must have an Executive Summary, Table of Contents, etc. When you spell this out, it makes it simpler for both the person and you to wrap up the task correctly and with the necessary quality.

Question: I can do the work in less time than X. Why should I delegate?

True, but the right question to ask is: But do I personally have that time? The reason why you are thinking of delegating in the first place is because you are swamped for time. And X has been chosen because he has more time. X can work on that task while you are doing something else. Yes, he may take longer, but how critical is that additional delay?

Also realistically, how much longer is the other person going to take? If it is going to be several times what you would take, then you are probably looking at the wrong person. Find the appropriate person. Provide them tips and suggestions to help them do it faster.

Question: I will make less mistakes than X.

Again, true — because you are more experienced than X. But if you never give another person an opportunity, she will never learn to improve. Let the person make mistakes and learn from them. That way, they will continue to improve and then you can give them increasingly challenging tasks.

Now, you may be faced with a situation where you have a critical task and there is no one with the right experience to delegate that task to. How did you land in that situation? Maybe because you didn’t spend enough time helping your subordinates grow by providing them simple opportunities where they could afford to make mistakes and learn. Nurture your team today.

Question: I don’t have anyone to delegate to.

Sometimes, even if you helped your team members learn and become more capable, they may still be not ready for a task. The reality is that there are some tasks that only you can do. That is why you are the boss. 🙂

So maybe the problem is: Should I be looking at some other task to delegate? It is very unlikely that everything you do is something that only you can do. The main reason why you are probably looking at this task is that it is the most distasteful one at the moment. However, the right criterion for delegating a task is not whether you like it or not, but whether somebody else can do it sufficiently well.

Also, ask around. Maybe there is someone you have overlooked who may be both interested in and capable of doing the work. You never know.

Question: My past experience with delegation has been bad. It doesn’t work.

Unless you are born with amazing judgment, you will make mistakes when delegating. You will delegate critical things to people who let you down. You will land in hot water because of their mistakes. You will miss deadlines. But if you quit now, you would have wasted all that learning experience.

Instead, by maintaining a bias towards delegation, you will have an incentive to learn more about how you can effectively delegate. You will learn who you can delegate to, when you can delegate to them and what you can delegate. You will also learn when NOT to delegate — which is arguably the most important thing you need to know.

Final Word: The biggest block that managers have when delegating is related to the concept of “responsibility”. People think that when they delegate a task, they delegate responsibility. So when the person fails them, the manager feels that life is unjust because they have to take the responsibility for someone else’s shortcomings or mistakes. That is so self-defeating.

When you delegate, you remain responsible for the task, its delivery and its quality. You must provide as much information and support to the person as necessary for the success of the task, while striking a balance with the need to avoid eating away your time. There are risks involved in delegating. When you delegate, you must consider yourself personally accountable at all times. Such an outlook will avoid frustration and empower you.

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