How To Delegate

by Steven Cerri on October 22, 2013

Here we go again.

There seem to be endless discussions about “delegation”. Over and over again the same answer is given regarding how one should go about learning to delegate. And over and over, the advice seems less than adequate.

The most recent article I read was on the TechRepublic website and it discussed delegation and how to learn to delegate successfully. Like so many other discussions regarding this topic, it focused on the idea that “letting go” was the key to successful delegating.

I don’t think this is the real issue. The advice seems to be derived from analysis, discussions, and observations of others instead of from hands-on, real-world, personal experience.

So I’m going to give you my understanding and advice regarding delegation which I derived after years of successfully delegating work and tasks to others. But first, I will describe what the article stated so as to clearly contrast my own view on the subject.

The Article
The article stated that, “…most leaders don’t delegate because of an emotional barrier to fear of losing control”. This, of course, is the typical explanation of why managers don’t delegate. (I think it is due to lack of proper training.)

The article goes on to state that, “While ‘letting go’ may be uncomfortable at first, … a ‘delegation dilemma plan’ that teaches leaders how and when to exercise their delegation muscles’” is needed. (Nonesense!)

The article then went on to present five steps necessary to teach managers how to delegate, all of which I consider not very useful, but I list them below to provide for a thorough discussion. Here are the suggested five steps of a “Delegation Dilemma Plan”.

1. Start small… delegate small tasks first. (A reasonable suggestion unless you don’t have a relatively small task handy at the moment. Then you’re stuck.)

2. Seek the right fit… find the right person for the task. (Once again, a reasonable suggestion but often, tasks must be assigned to the people on our team, not to the ideal candidate.)

3. Don’t have unrealistic expectations. (How exactly does one define “unrealistic expectations? In most cases managers just want the job done, on time and within budget.)

4. Ask the recipient what level of support/communication they want. (I agree with this suggestion but what happens when the recipient doesn’t want to communicate and doesn’t think they need support? Negotiation is then necessary.)

5. Reward effort and results. (ok)

By and large, these five steps seem to be common sense. In fact, they are so reasonable that we might expect that anyone could delegate just by using these five steps. However, the above suggestions don’t lead to a very concrete delegation process. I don’t think they are very informative in teaching managers how to delegate because they don’t take into account the specifics of the task to be delegated, what I call the “context”. Here is what I mean.

In my experience, delegation is not something that has anything to do with “letting go”. When I delegate or when I train or coach others to delegate, the idea of “letting go” never enters the discussion. It is also never about “empowerment”.

In my world, delegation is just a normal process of management, not in any way to be confused with a “special moment” or a “special set of conditions” that obtain when there is a need to delegate. It is nothing special. It is nothing that has to be taught as a separate skill separate and apart from management.

Delegation is merely an integral part of management and I can’t imagine a manager who can get anything done without delegating. Management (as well as leadership) is the process of getting things done through and with the help of others. So, delegation is seamlessly intertwined into the process of management. Delegation is not a special case that has to be “approached over time”. Delegation IS THE JOB of a manager… from day one. How can you be a manager and not delegate? (Seems impossible to me.)

So if you are trained or coached by me, I will not teach you how to delegate as a unique, separate skill. I will teach you how to manage, and delegation will be such a part of management that it will almost disappear into the management process. Here is what I mean.

Every manager who assigns a task to a direct report (i.e., a direct report is someone the manager has authority to give a task to) must decide how to monitor the progress of the task. So for me, the question is never, “How can I give up control so I can delegate this task to someone”. My question is, on the other hand, “What is the most effective way for me to monitor this task and this employee or team to ensure they are successful at completing the task on time and in budget. The corollary is also, “How do I monitor this task and employee/team in order to ensure that I can give them the necessary resources, in sufficient time to to help, if they get into difficulty completing the task on time and in budget?”

Delegation is nowhere in this discussion.
It is a matter of selecting the appropriate level of oversight. That means that under certain conditions (what I call “context”) I might monitor very closely and under other contexts I might monitor very infrequently. Therefore, in one context, I might not delegate much and in other context I might delegate a great deal. It is never about fear, it is rather about the context (i.e., the specific situation).

Here is how I accomplish this process.

In my world, the best “monitoring process” is a function of seven distinct “contextual” parameters, or conditions/situations. I’ll discuss two of the seven parameters here. Two of those parameters are the following:

1. Where does the expertise lie?
a. Is the manager the expert on this task or is the person doing the work the expert?

2. What is the time frame of the task?
a. Is a long-term task or a short-term task?

The Contextual Definition
If we take a look at these two parameters (what I call the parameters of the Contextual Definition) they will provide some insight as to how to determine the best form of oversight (i.e., the level of delegation) for effective management of the specific task.

Context #1 If the expertise lies with the manager; that is, if the manager knows how to perform the task and the direct report does not, then delegating (or empowering) the employee to complete the task on their own, (i.e., a high degree of delegation) is only setting the employee up for failure. If the manager is the expert and the employee is not, then the manager should be delegating with a very short leash. The manger should be utilizing very close scrutiny of the employee in order to ensure that the employee does not deviate from the “path to success”. The manager should provide sufficient and extensive guidance to ensure that the employee is successful.

On the other hand, if the expertise lies with the employee, then the manager may be able to monitor the task (i.e., delegate) with much less stringent oversight (i.e., a high degree of delegation). Since the employee knows what to do to successfully complete the task, the manager has less to contribute to the success of the task, other than performing his or her general management oversight responsibility.

Using this parameter, the key question is “Who has the expertise”? Depending upon where the expertise resides, the manager should alter his or her management process (i.e., degree of oversight/delegation) in order to provide a sufficient level of review to ensure task success.

Context #2 If the time frame is short, then the manager may, once again, monitor with a very short leash (i.e., little delegation). With a short time frame for the task, it is risky to assign a task and then not review it again until the task due date.

On the other hand, if the task has a very long time frame, it may be possible to assign the task and have longer intervals between review processes (i.e., an apparent higher degree of delegation).

Combinations and Judgement Make All the Difference
Looking at different combinations will provide insight as to why management and delegation are not easy skills to acquire.

If the expertise rests with the manager AND the task has a very short time frame, it may well be that the “delegation/review” process is one in which the manager is working closely with the person/team that the task is delegated to. This would reflect a low level of delegation.

On the other hand, if the expertise is with the employee and the task is a long-term task, then the management review process can be one in which the manager has little involvement except for progress oversight. This would reflect a high level of delegation.

The trick, of course, comes about with the other two combinations. For example, if the expertise rests with the employee but the task has a very short schedule, then the manager may have to monitor closely, even though the manager cannot contribute much to the success of the task. The manager’s role in this case is to ensure that no “surprises” occur.

Likewise, if the expertise rests with the manager and the task duration is long, then the manager may find a middle ground, in which he or she will monitor more than the task duration might dictate just because the manager knows how to complete the task when the employee does not.

In summary
The point is, that the “delegation process” should not be driven in any way by a discussion about “letting go” or “letting go of control”. This is the wrong focus.

The delegation process instead should be driven by a conversation of “what is the best management oversight process (i.e., level of delegation) to ensure task success?” And the parameters that should be considered to determine the best management process should take into account the context of the situation, that is, the capabilities and experience of the employee(s) performing the task and the structure/demands of the task itself.

In my opinion and experience, all this discussion about “letting go” and “empowering others” is miss-directed focus.

Also, the approach I take and teach, removes any concern about “micromanagement”. When the process I have explained above is explained to the direct report or team, everyone comes to understand the structure of what I call “contextual management and leadership”. The discussion removes any concern on anyone’s part about micromanagement. It simply disappears. Oversight is not about giving someone control or about giving up control. Oversight becomes a process of ensuring the growth in capabilities of employees/teams, successful completion of the task, and the competent oversight by the manager.

And this is not wishful thinking. I have plenty of real-world experience to support my statements. The Contextual Definition process works.

You can expect the topic of “delegation” to be one I’ll address soon on my ACE Online mentoring program. Look for it in the near future.

Be well,


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