When To Delegate And Why We Don’t
“You can delegate authority, but not responsibility.” – Stephen Comiskey
One of the things I struggled with when I started managing is delegation. I had a tough time finding a balance between stepping back and taking charge of the work to be done.
At the time, I joined a fast growing company with a mandate to assemble a team (grew it from two to 30 people in a year), set a system, grow and improve the product, and produce high value content myself. It was a real thrill, but it was tough. I spent an average of 14 hour days working on what felt like two jobs. One shift was with the team and the other shift was alone in the office once everyone went home.
I think back sometimes and wonder if I could have delegated better and freed up some of my time to work on something else or have a better life balance.
Here is what I learned:
Reasons That Kept Me From Delegating:
1- The Team Was Not Ready: We hired fresh graduates with limited experience because there weren’t any experienced people in the new industry then. It took a lot of time to help them develop. It also took time to find and nurture stars on the team until they were ready to take over critical work.
I learned that the team will never be completely ready. I also learned that part of getting people ready is to put them in the situation so they can help solve the problems. You will need to do a lot more hand-holding at the early stages. Eventually you will find that when you trust the right people with the job, they will do a better job than you would. Instead I focussed on communicating guiding principles for them to go by (broad strokes).
2- There Was No System: The product was new and I had to put together a system to produce this information product reliably and consistently. It was unclear what to delegate since everything was new and things were changing fast. I felt I had to get my hands dirty figuring out what the system should be like to know what I can delegate.
I eventually learned that you can be more effective (as a person and team) by involving key people in setting the system. When I later involved the team in the process of setting and refining a system, we came up with better solutions and the team was more committed towards implementing it. A nice bonus was that the team had a better appreciation of the issues and spent more time finding solutions rather than complaining about them.
3- I Was Swamped: I had so much to do and didn’t step back to sort out what I can delegate from what to do myself.
I eventually learned that you drown in what becomes quicksand if you don’t delegate. Taking the step back allows you to get more done in the long term. It also keeps your team more motivated as they work at solving problems (vs. just executing predefined tasks).
4- I Got Burned: I identified a few people up front to delegate some important tasks to. Some rose to the occasion while others disappointed. I was a little more reluctant to delegate to the ones that burned me after spending more time and effort fixing the mess they got us into.
Eventually I learned to identify the people who can take responsibilities and to let go of those who can’t or won’t. I learned how to give better instructions that focus on the end result. I learned to hold people accountable for delivering results (not effort).
So I learned to delegate better with time. But I also learned something more important about delegation.
The most important thing I learned about delegation is that it all depends on timing and the situation. It’s better sometimes to delegate while other times to take charge and even micromanage (yes, I said it… insert surprised dramatic gasp by the crowd).
When things are going smoothly, and your mandate is about continually improving things, then you are better off delegating and giving people responsibility to develop things further. Get your team to do the brain work. This has a triple effect:
a- It frees up your mind and time to do other things
b- More gets done as more people solve more problems in parallel (i.e. more horsepower)
c- And very interestingly, people will be much happier and motivated since they will feel a sense of accomplishment and development as they tackle issues
Just make sure you keep an eye on results and how things are going. It will take a lot more work from you to clean up after someone screws up for a while and causes problems. Derek Sivers wrote about this in his book when he learned to delegate but not abdicate.
When there are problems and major issues at hand, you are better off taking charge of things. Think about it this way:
If an airplane is nosediving in midair, the pilot has to switch off the auto-pilot, take over from co-pilots, and tell everyone what to do. It’s the same at work. If problems are serious and increasing, then you have to take charge to steer to safety before you can go back to delegating. Failing to do so will get you deeper into problems.
What have you learned about delegation? Do you have any stories to share? Do you know someone who is having trouble with delegation? Go ahead and share.