If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself, right? The perfectionist in you likes to be in control and is good at finding excuses - “Outcome won’t be as good.” “It will take me longer to assign and explain than to do it myself.” “I don’t have anyone with the right skills.” “No one in the team wants to do it anyway.”
There’s this itch to jump and solve every problem yourself. Got a presentation - no one can do it better than me. Got a production issue - it ain’t getting fixed if I am not involved. Got a client call - I need to seal this deal. Got a critical feature release - I better do it myself. The risk of not getting it right is way too high.
Picture this. I am your supervisor, and I walk over to you with pencil in hand and tell you to take it. You reach for the pencil, but I won’t let go. So I say, ‘What is wrong with you? Why can’t I delegate the pencil to you? - Andy Grove in High Output Management
In the short term it may seem more convenient and less time consuming to do the task yourself. But the future costs are way too high:
Does this sound familiar? You know you need to delegate and yet struggle to get it right every single time. When the outcome does not meet your expectations or work doesn’t get completed on time, is it a problem with trusting others to do it right? Do you find yourself saying “I should have done it myself” “I was a fool to let go” “I knew it’s never going to work.”
All this frustration and annoyance is a result of not paying attention to the right strategies that make a delegation effective. So what can you do to scale yourself while also scaling for impact?
You have to learn to delegate well. You have to build the skill that separates effective leaders from ineffective ones. You can’t do it all on your own. You have to let go of the control that stands in the way of your employees' growth. You have to learn to invest in those around you. Giving up control can feel hard, but it’s also necessary for growth.
The ability to delegate to others is the main difference between the roles of manager and independent producer. A producer does whatever is necessary to accomplish desired results, to get the golden eggs. A parent who washes the dishes, an architect who draws up blueprints, or a secretary who types correspondence is a producer. But when a person sets up and works with and through people and systems to produce golden eggs, that person becomes a manager in the interdependent sense. A parent who delegates washing the dishes to a child is a manager. An architect who heads a team of other architects is a manager. A secretary who supervises other secretaries and office personnel is an office manager. A producer can invest one hour of effort and produce one unit of results, assuming no loss of efficiency. A manager, on the other hand, can invest one hour of effort and produce ten or fifty or a hundred units through effective delegation. Management is essentially moving the fulcrum over, and the key to effective management is delegation - Stephen R. Covey
1. Shift from doing to leading
Effective delegation requires letting go of control and it starts with a big mindset shift.
Surely you were promoted because you were faster and better than your peers, but those aren’t the same skills that will help you succeed in this position. As a lead, manager or a leader, the impact of your work isn’t based on what you achieve directly, it’s rooted in how you enable your team to work together and deliver on results. In other words, don’t stretch your own limits, stretch the limits of your team. Shift your mindset from doing to leading others. From generating an outcome yourself to helping others achieve the same outcome. From practicing the skills that got you here to investing in building the same skills in others so that they can do it too.
If you want to do a few small things right, do them yourself. If you want to do great things and make a big impact, learn to delegate - John C. Maxwell in Developing the Leaders Around You
One of the reasons why it’s so hard to let go of control is aiming for faultless execution. When you aren’t willing to accept failures as learning opportunities or when every mistake reflects on their competence, you fail to give space to others to learn and grow. You see them as personal inadequacies as opposed to it being a natural part of growth.
Build fault tolerance in your mind and attitude. Be willing to accept failures, to experiment. If you get furious every time someone makes a mistake, people will soon learn to play safe. Creativity and innovation will take a back seat and you won’t achieve what you have been aiming all along.
When you struggle to delegate, start with asking yourself these questions:
Facing these fears upfront will shift your frame of mind from the inclination to do it yourself to considering the possibility of delegating it to others. That in itself is a very useful first step.
Once the mindset shift has started, it’s time to start shifting behaviors and the best way to do that is to do it right from the beginning.
2. Map right problems to right people
Picking the right person is the crucial part of getting the job done well. It’s not always the person who can do it best. You need to ask yourself - who needs this opportunity right now? Who needs to practice these skills? Who might seem interested to take on this challenge? Who actually has the bandwidth?
A crucial mistake most managers make at this stage is to delegate work which shouldn’t be done at all. Without careful planning, they hurry into getting things off their plate and end up delegating inconsequential work. Peter Drucker wrote, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”
Have you ever been given illogical assignments, handed unimportant work, or commanded to do something in the most inefficient fashion possible? Not fun and not productive. Now it’s your turn to show that you know better. Delegation is to be used as a further step in reduction, not as an excuse to create more movement and add to the unimportant. Unless something is well-defined and important, no one should do it. Eliminate before you delegate - Tim Ferris, The 4-Hour Workweek
A useful practice to effectively delegate involves utilizing the Eisenhower Matrix to prioritize all your goals into the 4 quadrants which enables you to focus on the important, work towards reducing the urgent, identify work that can be delegated and ruthlessly eliminate everything else.
Passing responsibilities and giving opportunities to others is great, but not if it’s something that you got to do yourself. Laying out vision for the team, determining recruitment budgets, defining hiring plans, or conducting interviews as a hiring manager are examples of some of the important things that shouldn’t be delegated or delayed.
Finding the right balance is tricky. You have to look at both the sides and ask questions:
Once you are able to identify the parts that only you can do, identify ways to delegate the rest. Map people to different areas based on their strengths, the opportunities they need or the skills they have been looking to practice.
With the right thing to delegate figured out, next comes the problem of delegating it right.
3. Delegate problems, not solutions
Managers fail to delegate effectively when they pass on the opportunity but refuse to give the autonomy that goes with it. They share the “what,” but hold on to the “how.” They want things done and want it done their way. It leaves their team members, especially the high performers frustrated. They say - what’s the point of delegating a task and then micromanaging every decision?
To delegate effectively, focus on the results and not the methods. Show them the destination, but let them steer their own ship. Don’t let your ego or desire for perfectionism obstruct others from getting work done. Be ready to accept the fact that different people will take different approaches. Some tasks will not be so well done and others will be better than you had imagined.
Spend your time and energy into providing clear, upfront understanding of the problem statement and ask for their commitment in driving it to completion. Let your team know that some failure is acceptable, but that doesn’t give them permission to be careless or lazy. Talk to them about what’s acceptable and what’s not. You can keep the bar high while leaving room for learning and growth.
In Drive, Daniel Pink writes that people often want autonomy over the four T’s “their task, their time, their technique, and their team.”
In an economy that demands nonroutine, creative, conceptual abilities—as any artist or designer would agree. Autonomy over task has long been critical to their ability to create. And good leaders (as opposed to competent “managers”) understand this in their bones - Daniel Pink
What can you do?
Think in terms of the final outcomes you desire and not the specific tasks someone needs to do to achieve it. When you define the outcome clearly, but empower others to implement their own solutions, they aren’t restricted to one way of doing things. Giving people a choice of method also makes them feel responsible for results.
Share the “what” - the specific outcome that needs to be achieved, support it with “why” - how it fits into the big picture and define what success looks like - what looks like a job well done. Knowing the “Why” of doing something is both motivating and inspiring. It opens the door to creativity and innovation. It invites people to find new ways of doing things as opposed to sticking with how it has always been done. By letting go of “how,” you aren’t asking them to simply mark an item off their todo list, you are asking them to create their own todo list to accomplish the task.
This advice from General George S. Patton sums up the idea well “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”
4. Delegate, don’t abdicate
Empowerment does not mean boundary less freedom. You cannot be too hands off and expect people to figure everything out on their own. People need support to feel empowered. Leaving them to struggle and figure everything out on their own leads to frustration, adds to confusion and lack of support can make them feel helpless.
They need your support along the way. Involved too much? You run the risk of micromanagement. Involved too little? It can make you miss those critical moments where your support or advice could have made a difference. The magic is in the balance.
Delegation without follow-through is abdication. You can never wash your hands of a task. Even after you delegate it, you are still responsible for its accomplishment, and monitoring the delegated task is the only practical way for you to ensure a result. Monitoring is not meddling, but means checking to make sure an activity is proceeding in line with expectations - Andy Groove
Set upfront expectations on the intermediate milestones. Align on frequency of updates. Discuss how and when you can touch base to keep things moving. Knowing you are there to help can act as a powerful force to keep them motivated on the task.
When they face challenges or setbacks, help them find their own solutions by asking questions instead of spoon-feeding solutions. Coach, don’t solve is the mantra. Ask relevant questions to develop their critical thinking skills:
5. Incorporate feedback loop
Every leader is blind to their own blind spots. Consider yourself a rockstar at delegation? Ask your team - they probably think you suck at it.
The only way to know where you stand and what you can do to improve is to incorporate feedback from the process. Spend some review time with your team to understand how delegation worked for them:
Doing this at frequent intervals with your team not only establishes their trust, it opens you to implement your own self-correction process so that you can finally let go of that control and enable your team to start doing more.
Previously published here.