How to Delegate with Confidence

Leaders quickly learn we can’t do everything ourselves. We need the resources and brainpower of our teammates and staff. But often we leaders are … picky. OCD? Our feeling is that no one can do a task better than we can. And even when that’s true, we still can’t do it all ourselves. Or priorities arise like whack-a-moles that we can’t address without the help of others.

Learning how to delegate wisely, using well-proven principles and behaviors, can result in the other person meeting our Conditions of Satisfaction, fully and on time.

First a clarification about “delegation”. This term typically evokes a hierarchical organization: a remnant of command and control. It connotes and presupposes power over another. And a lot of organizations are still hierarchical. But as we move to lean collaborative organizations, “the supervisor, leader or coach sees their role as building capabilities for individuals, the group and the firm,” as Hal Macomber reminds us, “you are autonomous and a member of the team who are here to serve our customers, each other, the firm, stakeholders, and the planet. You do the work that is negotiated with you including stepping in to do the next most important task.” So we’ll continue to use the word “delegation”, while understanding that it has a broader meaning in non-heirarchical organizations.

In their excellent curriculum Essential Conversations for Project Success (© 2008, Lean Project Consulting), Hal Macomber and Christine Slivon offer some simple but powerful steps in good delegation.

  1. Conversation for Action. Delegation is a conversation. It is not one person telling another what to do. It is a discussion between two people who each talk and listen.

  2. Make a request. The initial speaker (customer) makes a request of the listener (performer). The performer needs to be capable of doing the task requested: willing and with the necessary skills and time.

  3. Mutually understood Conditions of Satisfaction. The customer must clearly and fully state what will fully satisfy their request. Specifics. Avoid assumptions; what is obvious to me may not be obvious to you.
    1. Macomber/Slivon’s example: “I want you to paint my house.” What color? Oil based or latex? What brand or quality of paint? Should the old paint be scraped first? Ladders or scaffold? Use a primer? Who will clean up? How will landscaping be protected?

  4. Due date. And by what date should the work be done? You’re thinking “now”. The performer is thinking “when I get around to it.”
    1. Paint my house tomorrow? Or when you have time? Or when the weather is right? Or …

  5. Possible Responses to a Request. If a supervisor is making the request (delegation), both parties are likely to expect the response to be, “Yes, sir or mam, I’m on it. I accept.” That would be the first type of response: But that might not lead to a reliable commitment or a satisfied job at the end. The possible responses to delegation (or any request) could be:
    1. Accept.
    2. Decline.
    3. Conditional promise. I accept depending on certain conditions.
    4. Question. More information is needed.
    5. Counter-Offer. As Macomber/Slivon explain it: “This is an option we often don’t realize we have. We may not be able to provide exactly what’s being asked for, but we may be able to satisfy the customer in some other way. This is a place where it is important to listen for the customer’s underlying concern.”
    6. Commit to commit later.“We may need to check on what we’re already committed to before we can accept this commitment.”

Now what? For anything other than a flat-out “decline”, the next steps are a bit of a dance. The customer makes sure the promissor has blocked the time to fulfill the commitment and doesn’t intrude on that time-block by making further requests that can only be done then. Likewise, the performer keeps the customer informed on progress and any follow-up questions. If there is no intermediate follow-up, the customer (the one who is delegating) needs to inquire as to how it’s going and if there are any questions. The customer needs to understand the performer’s other commitments to assure they are not over-promising.

In past lives I’ve kept a current log of my delegated promises, updated my boss and asked my boss every day if the priorities have changed. In other circumstances having a Kanban board (our team does this with our promises prominently displayed and prioritized https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6RNWSWNjdI8) can make promises visual for all to see: actions you are “Doing”, requests that are waiting in the “To Do” that may need the help of teammates to level capacity, plus work that’s “Done”.

  1. There’s an equal responsibility in delegation (that’s why it’s referred to as a dance). The customer needs to, in Macomber/Slivon’s words:
    • Stay interested in the success of promises made.
    • Offer your help, if needed.
    • Consider revising the conditions of satisfaction as circumstances change.
    • Consider changing the due date when priorities change.
    • Let the performer know you are looking forward to completion.
    • Keep the context for the promise alive for the performer.
    • Tune into the mood of the performer. Is it appropriate for the task to be performed? Offer a discussion where necessary.
    • Always say, “Thank you.”

Now I have a request of you. Try these six steps when you next delegate and let me know your experience, your feedback. Did this lead to delegating with confidence? What else did you notice that changed or improved?

For further reading, Hal Macomber suggests: Freedom from Command and Control, A Better way to make work work,” by Sir John Seddon, 2003 (Amazon)

-Dan Fauchier

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