Most of us know instinctively how to delegate - and I’m going to demonstrate this almost entirely by talking about sandwiches
When I was starting out in management, I was given some advice: If you’re busy, you’re doing something wrong. It didn’t make sense to me at first, but it became clear once I’d been doing the job a little while.
There are only so many hours in the day and if mine were spent doing things myself I wouldn’t be available to my team. As managers, we’re not supposed to do things. We’re supposed to make things happen.
Don’t overcomplicate it
Delegation is one of the things many people who are new to business ownership most commonly struggle with, but as it happens almost all of us know instinctively how to delegate successfully and we do it in our regular lives without even realising. It’s only at work that we tend to overcomplicate it.
I’m going to demonstrate this almost entirely by talking about sandwiches. Consider this simple request: “Can you pick me up some lunch while you’re out?” “Sure, what do you want?” “Any sandwich will do - I don’t eat eggs though.”
Believe it or not, this is an example of everything a great piece of delegation needs. It avoids all the most common pitfalls and creates the best chance of a positive outcome. It achieves this by delivering the two vital components of any successful delegation:
- Responsibility - what we want someone to achieve.
- Authority - the boundaries in which they can operate.
This delegation provided clear responsibility and it gave broad authority that prevented any bad outcomes while leaving scope for a range of good ones.
The responsibility was simply to get us lunch, but we didn’t know exactly what we wanted - we just knew that it should be a sandwich and that it shouldn’t have egg in it - so we restricted the person’s authority to ensure they met their responsibility within those boundaries. That’s all there is to successful delegation.
How not to do it
Let’s compare that to a slightly different - yet hugely inferior - way it could have been handled: “Can you pick me up some lunch while you’re out?” “Sure, what do you want?” “A club sandwich.”
This time, the person’s authority has been restricted so tightly that we have only permitted one option to meet the responsibility we gave them. This specificity does two things: it makes worse outcomes more likely and better outcomes less likely.
Let’s start with those worse outcomes. What happens if they can’t get you a club sandwich? We haven’t provided them with any of the parameters of a good decision - we’ve just given them a solitary example of one - so they’re immediately outside the scope of our influence as the delegator. In order for them to proceed, they must either call us to ask for more guidance or just pick something else and hope for the best.
If they call us, more of our time is taken up, so this is immediately a failure of delegation. But if they pick something else, with no information about the reasons we asked for a club sandwich in the first place, they might pick something we hate. We didn’t tell them that we wanted a sandwich and we didn’t tell them we don’t eat eggs. We just told them one specific way they could meet the responsibility we gave them.
Even if they’re able to meet the responsibility the way we requested, things can still go wrong. Let’s say they get us the sandwich we asked for, but at the same time they get themselves an amazing sandwich that the place they visited is famous for.
When they come back and give us our boring sandwich, we will look at theirs with envy. We only asked for a club sandwich because it was safe and easy. We didn’t want to spend ages thinking about what to eat because we were really busy.
So instead of trusting them to think and relying on them to make a good decision for us, we threw out the first acceptable solution we could think of. It wasn’t like we were specifically craving a club sandwich, we just didn’t know about this amazing one.
If we’d just said “any sandwich that doesn’t have egg in it”, then we’d have ended up with a great sandwich. The person who was going out to get lunch had access to all the options and they had all the information we didn’t have.
They were far better placed to make a great decision for us. All they needed was the parameters of what a good decision would have looked like for us.
If we’d given them those, they could have applied their knowledge and situational information and made a great decision for us. Instead, we just gave them one example of an acceptable decision and we got the mediocrity we asked for.
Use the broadest authority
This is what happens when you delegate with restricted authority. When you tell people exactly what to do, you deny yourself the benefit of their knowledge and ability. But when you delegate with the broadest authority possible and provide people with the parameters of a good decision, you make worse outcomes less likely, better ones more likely and life easier for everyone.
I sometimes think of the authority I give people when I delegate as if it were a fence I place around their responsibility. The fence doesn’t just prevent the bad outcomes, it also gives them confidence to know that as long as they stay within the boundaries of that fence the decisions they make are okay with me.
Autonomy is one of the four vital things we all need from work in order to be fully engaged. Successful delegation is crucial when it comes to providing autonomy, so it’s a skill every business owner should master.
It can be tempting to attempt to control the exact outcomes when you delegate. But it doesn’t work. If you try to do that, you’re going to end up constantly disappointed and very busy. And as someone once told me: if you’re busy, you’re doing something wrong.
Matt Casey is a management expert, the co-founder of DoThings.io and author of The Management Delusion: What If We’re Doing it All Wrong?.