When Delegation Fails

Delegation is an important activity in every organization, yet I rarely speak with anyone who’s been formally trained. In my experience, most people were introduced to delegation by watching their mother delegate “chores”–a model that doesn’t translate well to a professional environment.

If the general idea behind delegation is to share or transfer responsibility from one individual to another, the delegator must ensure the chosen delegate has sufficient authority to fulfill the delegated responsibility. (See step #3 below) Without that in place, the delegate will be unable to succeed. The way to ensure the relationship between authority and responsibility doesn’t get out of balance is to use a formal delegation process, one that includes a review of the actions to be taken and the authority needed to take them.

Delegating authority involves risk. In complex environments risk often creates barriers to its transfer. Problems also arise when individuals with authority are reluctant, or unable to transfer sufficient authority to a delegate. Using a locked door as a metaphor, if I need you to go into a secured room, you’re doomed to fail without the key. Without appropriate authority, so is any delegate. Failure or inability to transfer authority along with the transfer of responsibility sows the seeds of bureaucracy where nothing gets done.

There are two facets vital to the delegation process, a technique with numerous how-to resources, that improve efficacy and create foresight.

  • Maintaining the proper balance between responsibility and authority
  • Using a system that accommodates all levels of delegate task expertise, including novice

I developed a bullet-proof 8 step delegation process about 25 years ago and it has served me and my clients well ever since.

First, please realize that ever one of the 8 steps do NOT need to be completed with every delegated task. There are times when the task is simple, the delegate is experienced, or the risk is low and formality can waste valuable time.

The process I’ve outlined below is fo the most extreme situations; when the delegate has limited experience, the risks are great, and success is not an option. Use the steps your common sense tells you that you need for your specific delegation circumstances.

  1. Objective: A clear and concise description of the result you want the delegate to achieve, NOT how you want them to achieve it! If you can’t clearly document what you want to happen, you’ll never be successful delegating the effort to someone else and you’re building a prison for yourself.
  1. Training Required: It’s your job as delegator to know what specific knowledge and skills are needed to fulfill the task you’re delegating. Make sure you’re prepared to train the delegate properly and sufficiently. NOTE: This will take time!
  1. Delegate Input: These are questions you need to ask the delegate at the beginning. Notice you want to ask for their approach BEFORE you give them yours. How else will you ever learn a potentially better way to do things?
  • Objective is clearly understood: YES / NO
    NOTE: This is where you verify that the delegate has sufficient authority to complete the task being delegated.
  • Initial thoughts/ideas for accomplishing objective:
  • Target Completion Date:
  1. Delegator Support & Guidance: Give your input AFTER the delegate you’ve chosen has had their say- see step #3 above! Make sure they understand all three of these items.
  • Critical Information:
  • Suggested approach:
  • Objective measures of success:
  1. Resources: You need to ask the delegate how much of these resources they think they’re going to need.
  • Time: How many hours of their workday will this require from them?
  • Budget: How much money will they need to complete the task?
  • People: Who else will they need to get involved to help them or support their efforts? Those people are also valuable resources and have other jobs to do. Don’t waste their time or use them frivolously.
  • Other: Are there facilities, equipment, or technology resources they’ll need to complete the task? What are they and how will they use them?
  1. Contract: (check one box) THIS IS A KEY STEP: You and your delegate must decide on a contract that defines how you will interact while the task is being executed.
  • Do only what I tell you, no more, no less
  • Get approval before every step
  • Take action – stay in touch on schedule
  • Take action – report back when completed
  • eMail ¨  in person   ¨  written report   ¨  voice mail   ¨  other

The structure, content and modality of the feedback you want must be clearly defined. If you leave it to the delegate, you have no right to criticize how they do it. Most people still can’t read minds. I recommend creating your own personal task feedback form and instructing your delegates to use it. That wway your expectations will always be met!

  1. Feedback Requested: Set a date and time for when you and your delegate will discuss the process and task. This is the closing paperwork where you and your delegate get to learn from one another, make the task more effective, and your business better.
  1. Signatures: Yes, if it’s important enough, put all this in writing and sign it, both of you.
    Delegate:____________________                 Delegator:_____________
    I use two-part NCR forms so we both have the exact same information for reference. If you’re interested in my form, email me your address and I’ll mail a sample to you.

Copyright ©2004-2018 Larry Mandelberg



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