3 critical steps for effective delegation

3 critical steps for effective delegation

Entrepreneurs tend to be excellent do-ers. There will have been a time in their journey when they will have been the person who did everything - a personal highlight for me was manually re-naming 10,000 computer files before launching my karaoke business! Defining and executing action plans is an entrepreneur’s meat and drink, and they will back themselves to get almost anything done.

Pretty soon in the journey, however, this becomes a major limitation. You can certainly get the rocket ship off the ground this way, but there’s no way it’s getting to the outer reaches of space without you developing the ability to amplify your impact through other people. And this is all about delegation.

There are many components to effective delegation and to my mind the most critical are:

  • Establishing the right level
  • Communicating the context
  • Clarifying the constraints 

I’m going to use a simple, real-world, domestic example to illustrate this! Say my wife Emma is cooking dinner (no gender stereotyping here, by the way, we split the catering and cooking 50:50) and I ask her if there’s anything I can do to help. She will typically say something like “Yes, can you move the bowl off the counter?” So of course I could just move the bowl off the counter as she asks, but that seems like a fairly poor use of my abilities, and I’ll be idle again in a few seconds. So instead I would typically ask: “What’s the wider context for that?” (She’d probably hit me if I actually said that - normally it’s something like “Give me a bigger job”.) And she might say: “I need to get the counter cleared up for prepping”. And that certainly gives me more to go on and more to do but I still reckon I can be more useful than that, so I might ask, “What will you be prepping first?” “I need to make a sauce for the pasta”, comes the answer.

So now I feel I can be suitably useful - not only can I move everything that’s on the counter and wipe it down, but I can also look at the recipe book to find out what the sauce ingredients are and put them on the counter. And if I felt comfortable, I could even progress to prepping and making the sauce.

You get the idea. “Can you move the bowl off the counter?” is an example of poor delegation. “Can you make the sauce for tonight’s dinner?” is better. But it all depends on the capability of the person you’re delegating to. Let’s look at those components again as 3 key steps.

Step 1 - establish the right level of delegation. The task assigned should broadly match my abilities, but with a bit of stretch. In this illustration, the levels might look something like this:

  • Move the bowl
  • Clear the counter
  • Prep the counter for sauce making
  • Make the pasta sauce
  • Make dinner
  • Feed the family tonight
  • Cater for the family this week

The key is for you, the delegator, to go down the list until you get to the first one you don’t know I can do and pick that. It should feel a bit uncomfortable for you, but not absurdly so. The further you get from my known level of competence, the more risky the outcome, so work out what level of risk you can live with. No risk for you means no learning or development for me.

Step 2 - communicate a suitably wide context. The wider the context I have for what needs to be done, and the better I understand why, the bigger the opportunity I have to over-deliver, outperform expectations and learn in the process. But again the context needs to have some relationship with my current competence level - if I’m only capable of moving a bowl, talk of weekly catering for the family will go way over my head. So in terms of the levels above, you might give me a context that’s 2 or 3 levels below the task you’re giving me.

Step 3 - clarify any constraints. A wider context potentially empowers me to over-perform, but it also gives me more scope to go completely off-piste, so you need to communicate clearly any boundaries that you don’t want me to cross. For example, if you gave me the job of making the sauce, you might tell me to use only the ingredients listed and have it ready within 20 minutes.

Once you’ve navigated these steps, then comes the most important thing of all - you need to LEAVE ME ALONE TO DO IT.

In the domestic example above, I almost certainly won’t make exactly the same sauce that Emma would have made, but there will be a sauce to cover the pasta for dinner, and the job of “feeding the family tonight” will get done. My sauce may not taste as good as her sauces, but this will provide an opportunity for feedback and learning. But here’s the killer that delegators often don’t want to consider - it might actually be better!

Effective delegation gives people the opportunity to exceed your expectations and surprise you. The real joy of it is that it helps you to unearth and unleash the hidden stars in your team, and they are the fuel that will take the rocket ship higher than you could ever take it on your own.

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