Zen and The Art of Effective Delegation

how to delegate work effectively without losing control

Time and attention.

These are the most valuable assets for a knowledge-age worker. They’re even more valuable for leaders. Unfortunately, they’re also the most ignored.

Most leaders chunk their 9 AM to 8 PM days in prescheduled 30-minute to one-hour slots. According to Marc Andreessen, this leads to three critical problems.

First, leaders can never find the time to sit down and deep-think. They cannot identify problems and course-correct. The result is ‘tunneling,’ where leaders end up addressing many burning problems only after they spiral out of control.

Second, they struggle to adapt to changes in circumstances. Today, circumstances are as unpredictable as cats. Customer behavior can change within a month, a new entrant can burst onto the scene and disrupt the market, a virus can paralyze the global economy overnight. When organizations cannot adapt, they end up at an incalculable disadvantage.

Finally, wanting to be on top of everything also turns leaders into micromanagers. While this lets them have their pulse on everything, it also turns them into bottlenecks. The line of employees waiting for their approval grows longer, work comes to a standstill, and the culture deteriorates.

In the short-term, such problems don’t appear urgent. But in the long term, they have far-reaching consequences.

By not using their time and attention wisely, leaders inadvertently end up holding their company ransom.

How to Make More Time?

Every leader encounters the problems Andreessen highlighted. They’re also aware of its consequences, which they hope to address when they have more time.

But urgent fires erupt and the same problems reach their desk over and over again with surprising speed. How will they find time to do what’s important? 

The answer lies in a term that has turned into a platitude: delegation.

Delegation is a no-brainer. If you want to focus on larger things, you must hand over less important tasks to your people. In fact, a key trait of astute leaders is that they start preparing someone to take over a task in their kitty once they’ve figured out how it’s done.

This concept is easy to talk about. Every leader has tried to delegate work without losing control, but most struggle to practice it. They end up spending time addressing mistakes and escalations and increases their workload. Eventually, they take back the reins to do things faster.

As a result, things stay exactly the way they are. Everyone resigns themselves to a workplace that feels like a nightmarish version of Groundhog’s Day.

Is there an effective framework that makes leaders better at delegation? Can they say, “I am not going to do this”, “I’m going to say no”, or “I’m going to have someone else do this?” More importantly, can they succeed at delegating effectively?

The answer to all the above questions is an emphatic “Yes!”. Here’s a three-step framework to achieve it.

1. Decide: What to Delegate?

A common question leaders grapple with is, “Which tasks should I delegate?”

Delegating non-demanding, easy to replicate tasks makes sense. Delegating the important ones can lead to a crisis.

But how can you separate the signal from the noise? How can you distinguish between non-demanding and value-adding tasks when everything appears important?

In his seminal book Deep Work, Cal Newport offers a simple yet insightful question to evaluate activities:

How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?

Let’s apply this question to three tasks:

  1. Building a Powerpoint presentation about the current quarter’s performance.
  2. Creating weekly reports to inform stakeholders about the status of current tasks.
  3. Discussing an important project and agreeing on the next steps in a meeting.

The first two tasks demand the knowledge of how to make a PPT or report, an understanding of the standard templates within your company, and how to tabulate and graphically present the metrics your company tracks.

The hypothetical college graduate would already know Powerpoint and Excel, and learning your company’s template shouldn’t take more than a week. The bigger question is where she’ll get the data to populate the sheets from. This is not trivial, but it won’t require more than a month of coaching. So we can use 45 days as a conservative answer.

The third task is more demanding. Meetings can be tedious and tricky. A college graduate would have to understand the project, its milestones, and the skills of its contributors.

She might also need insights into interpersonal dynamics and how projects get executed in the organization. This could take anywhere between three to six months.

This question shows how much expertise each task requires. You can retain the tasks that require more time (since you’ve earned the expertise at them). For the rest, you can move to the next step.

2. Execute: How to Delegate?

It’s tempting to delegate a less demanding task to someone and expect things to flow smoothly. But what’s less demanding for you is not the same for others.

That’s why “heavy thinking” is an integral part of the delegation process. This involves outlining your activities so they serve as a reference manual, identifying the right person to delegate the task, and enabling her with the tools she needs to achieve the output.

For instance, your role while delegating Powerpoint presentations or weekly reports is more than just assigning it to someone and saying “Come to me if you have questions.” Your role is to share templates with them and inform them about whom to collect the data from.

This sounds like “work”. The desire to avoid it makes most leaders shy away from delegating work. That’s because they confuse delegation with elimination.

Elimination means stopping a task. Delegation means getting the task done the right way by someone else. For this, people need the right tools to succeed. Otherwise, they turn for a gunfight with a knife.

As a leader, your job is not to do things better than your people. It’s to empower them to do their jobs better.

When you remain indispensable in daily operations, you function as an overpaid employee. When you become dispensable in them, you can focus on larger goals that justify your worth.

But delegation can spiral into micromanagement if you’re not careful. This is why the final step is important to close the loop.

3. Follow Up: How to Improve the Process?

Leaders can confuse following up with checking whether the execution followed the textbook. In other words, they try to delegate without losing control.

This doesn’t just foster micromanagement. It also makes people hide behind the process when they make mistakes. If something goes wrong, they say, “But I followed the process.”

Such a culture is toxic. It makes companies do what they’ve always done and turn resistant to changes in circumstances. You already know what happens to such companies.

To move forward, a company needs people to step up and find better ways to achieve results. Because work in the knowledge era is not defined by quantity or costs, but by results.

You can make people step up by conducting reviews. Lead them with questions—not the rhetoric ones to impose your answers, but open-ended ones to listen. Solicit people’s views to build safety nets, address bottlenecks, and identify how much autonomy you can give.

This doesn’t just remove the task from your kitty in the long term. It also makes the task more effective.

Plus, this “we’re in it together” mindset makes people feel trusted. In turn, they work harder to vindicate your faith in them. They become creative and proactive, cope better with uncertainty, and strive to make the mission a success.

“We invest in people, not in buildings.” — Steve Jobs.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy removed protocols and hierarchies to let his team discuss options as peers. He asked questions, solicited opinions, and cultivated constructive conflict among his team members. He made each of them feel like an important part of the decision-making process.

This feeling permeated throughout the team. They engaged in open dialogue and committed to Kennedy’s final decision regardless of the strategy they proposed.

The result was a peaceful resolution to a situation that could’ve culminated in war.

Summing Up

Your time is worth $1000 for your company. Treat it like that. Make effective delegation an important tool in your leadership arsenal.

Let people make mistakes, let some urgent fires burn themselves out. If you invest in short-term pains, you’ll enjoy long-term gains.

Delegation doesn’t just get work done. It also helps you grow as a leader. You can focus on larger, more important goals. At the same time, you improve your people management skills.

Effective delegation is a win-win for you, your people, and your company. Who doesn’t love a win-win?

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