How to Delegate

Delegating well is a skill very few managers have. Hitting that sweet spot between too much control and too little can be challenging, and many of us don’t strike the right balance.

One of the things I find most interesting about delegating is that most of us do instinctively know how to do it - and we will do it effectively all the time without realising - we just don’t realise.

Imagine you’re with a friend or a colleague, and you say to them “Hey, I’m going to go and grab some lunch, do you want anything?”

“Thanks, that would be great” they reply

“Ok cool, what do you want?” you ask

And they say…

“Just any sandwich will do. I don’t eat egg though”

You might not realise it, but that was great delegation. They didn’t do what a lot of managers do when they delegate, and specify the exact outcome they wanted. They didn’t even bother thinking about what all the different possible outcomes could be.

What they did is provide the two key things necessary for any good piece of delegation:

  • What they want us to do (our responsibility)
  • What we can’t do (our authority)

They picked a broad objective: sandwich, and then applied a restriction to how we achieve it: no egg.

Delegating at work follows the exact same principles as asking your friend to pick you up some lunch.

When you ask someone to achieve something for you, don’t tell them the specific way you want them to achieve it, just tell them what needs to be achieved and set the minimum possible boundaries to keep them on track.

Sticking with the lunch example, let’s imagine they’d approached it differently. In this scenario, they didn’t trust you to make a decision, so they told you a specific sandwich. Let’s say they asked for a Club Sandwich.

When you got to the store, they didn’t have one of those. Now, because you haven’t been told any parameters of what makes a good decision - you’ve just been provided one example of a good decision - you have nothing to guide you. The best you can do is pick sandwich that’s similar. There’s a bacon and egg one there - there’s bacon in a club sandwich. That one will probably do. If they’d just told you “Sandwich, no egg” then you’d have been able to make a better decision.

Now let’s imagine that the store did have the club sandwich. You pick them their boring sandwich, then you pick up the amazing sandwich that this place sells that happens to have no egg in it. When you come back and give them their sandwich, they look at yours with envy. It’s a much better sandwich. They only asked for the Club Sandwich because it was safe and easy and they couldn’t be bothered to think about it, it wasn’t like they were specifically craving that sandwich. If they’d known this amazing sandwich was an option, they’d have had that!

Delegating with the minimum necessary restrictions opens the door for much better outcomes, and it makes life much easier for both parties.

When I wanted our website designed, I had a few ideas for how I wanted it to look. They were quite specific ideas, right down to the colours I wanted to use, and I really liked them. But at the same time, I knew I might like lots of other things as well. If I’d asked for the site to be designed based on what I had in my head, I’d have had to be heavily involved. It would have taken up a lot of my time to explain what I meant, and it would have made the designers job harder trying to distill what I was picturing and turn it into a workable concept.

Really though, all I actually wanted was a website that looked good. So when I delegated the task to the designer, I just said “Make it look good. No stock photos”.

Although I did feel like I wanted specific things from the website, they weren’t actually requirements. The designer was far more skilled than me and far more likely to be able to produce a good outcome without those specifics. However, there was one preference I had that was a non-negotiable - I didn’t want stock photos. If our website was full of stock photos of office people smiling at each other, I wouldn’t have liked it. So I removed some of his authority and restricted him from choosing any design that included those photos.

The website I got back was nothing like the one I pictured. But guess what? I love it. It’s way better than the one that would have been made with my input. And I didn’t have to do any work on it at all.

Now, there is of course a chance that I wouldn’t have liked what came back. I might have hated it and had to ask for a complete redesign. I’ve noticed that it’s when things like that happen that people tend to lose their nerve and stop delegating effectively, and turn to process instead. It went wrong - so we must have done something wrong. What could we do differently next time to stop it going wrong? That’s how we’re supposed to think, right?

Let’s say I’d hated it, and I decided it needed to be completely redesigned. It would be easy for me to think “Damn, if I’d just been more detailed to begin with, we wouldn’t have wasted all this time”. That’s true if you take the one incident in isolation - on this one occasion delegating in this manner cost us time. But to judge the value of the behaviour overall, you can’t just consider the time lost when one thing goes wrong, you also have to also consider all the time saved when everything else went right as well.

Overall, the time we save as a business by not being controlling with our delegating massively outweighs the time we lose when something doesn’t go the way we want it to. We sometimes have to rebuild things entirely, but we save so much time avoiding the meetings and choice by committee that it more than makes up for it.

I think of it like this. Let’s call a good piece of work being delivered a win, and a piece of work having to be redone a loss. Delegating in a controlling way will probably generate fewer losses. But it will also generate fewer wins, because you’ll get so much less done. After 6 months of being cautious and giving everyone precise instructions on exactly what they should deliver, you might have 3 wins, and 0 losses.

Compare that to 6 months of empowered delegating where you have given responsibility, given only the absolutely essential restrictions, and supported your people with coaching. You will have moved so fast that you’ve shipped far more. Yes, the chances are there will be some mistakes in there, but you’ll probably have more like 10 wins and 3 losses. You’ll be a in better place overall.

"A man often meets his destiny on the path he takes to avoid it"
Jean de La Fontaine (full disclosure, I actually heard this from Master Oogway in Kung Fu Panda)

This quote applies perfectly to the way we so often delegate and control. We are so worried about wasting time by making mistakes, that we waste far more time trying to avoid them.

Delegate with the least possible restrictions, and allow people to work and make their own decisions with the most possible freedom. If you do this, you’ll deliver things so fast that it will more than make up for the times when things do go a bit wrong.

If you found this useful, please share it.