Delegate or Die!

Managers and leaders already know that you have to get the right people on the bus and in the right seats. They also know that seat allocation and task alignment must be correctly balanced. High-cost resources should be doing high value tasks and vice versa.

Well, knowing that is fine. But take a good look at what you are doing every day, and see whether you are delegating tasks from your desk to your subordinates. Are you still doing all the tasks yourself or, even worse, buying them back?

In the November–December 1974 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Bill Oncken and Don Wass released a classic “Who’s Got the Monkey?” about delegation. We’ve already mastered delegation, haven’t we? Actually, no.

The title of this article is not a facetious comment. We now know that stress is a killer, and that often we are stressed because we are drowning in a sea of tasks—a great number of which we should have others doing.

Take a simple example. How many of us are driven by our email in-boxes (usually arranged chronologically)? Messages pile up, we fall behind, and the stress starts to build.

If you were to print it, put it in your in-tray, and tell your boss you were going to tackle that huge pile of paper—starting with the most recent message and without prioritizing—the response you would probably get would be an incredulous “Huh?”.

We need a better approach to the increasing workloads, and we need others to help. So what do you do about it?

There are the six Ds of productivity. Doing is the most common, but productivity goes down when we are under pressure, and we start Dumping work on our subordinates.

But when it all gets too much, we really lose it and start dropping tasks. Leaders improve the organisation’s productivity when they start to Distribute the workload. Delegation takes this to the next level, and on a bigger scale. We often hear about empowerment, but what we are referring to by that term is Deputising our subordinates.

Eight Steps to Delegation

1. The first thing we have to do is to stop doing. Get the cost-task-productivity alignment correct and move stuff off your desk. But simple Dumping is like spreading an infection; you take your inability to get things done and spread it around the rest of your team.

2. Select the best person for the project.

3. Then start selling. That’s right, selling—not ordering. Tell them what is in it for them if they take on the project, given they will believe themselves considerably overworked.

4. Show how to do the task, modelling the approach needed.

5. Let them do it but watch and coach. Make sure they are taking the project along the path you need, rather following a tremendously interesting—but unnecessary—diversion.

6. Next, make it their project by letting go.

7. When they have completed the task, give them feedback. The two most effective ways of doing that is by saying what was good and what would make it even better next time.

8. Reward and celebrate their achievement.

Sounds simple enough. But, what happens in reality is that we get sidetracked. We buy it back, or put the monkey on our own back. People who work for us are often savvier than we are; they know how to get us to buy it back and we accommodate them. Another common outcome is that projects drifts, no longer having a clear owner and with no one accountable.

The key is to make sure the delegates are accountable, and the method needed to do so is adequate communication. Clearly explain (a) the desired results (always make sure that what is said is understood), (b) the performance standards, (c) the measures, and (d) the timing. Changes will always occur, so we have to be flexible regarding project execution.

Ultimately, it has to be a win-win situation, or the chance of buy-in diminishes and we are left with more stress and no results. Now that is a killer.