On delegating work better

Fellow leaders and managers, I want to share with you thoughts on a skill that we all know we should do better, but that often gets little attention: delegating work.

Summary: Delegation as coaching

Of course delegating work effectively requires the manager to provide instructions, set expectations, choose a suitable delegate, and check-in.

But what if as managers we then shifted our attention away from the delegated work itself and onto the delegate’s level of mastery of the work, levels of mastery like first mimicking, then understanding, and then innovating? We could then know better how to coach the delegate while he or she gains greater mastery over the delegated work.

When I think of delegating like this, it becomes more of a process with a delegate than a work assignment. This will require more time from us in the short term, but in the long run, having masterful delegates will be much more valuable and time saving.

What follows in this post

  1. Delegation 101
  2. The flaw: Abdicating instead of delegating responsibility
  3. Coaching delegates to master the work

Delegation 101

Much has already been written about the basics of delegation. Here is some background reading.

From those readings, which I encourage you to review, I’ve boiled down a basic delegation flow to this:

  1. Choose what responsibilities you’ll delegate to another person
  2. Choose a person who can do the work and who you  trust with the responsibilities and authority
  3. Assign the work using clear instructions and expectations, allowing the delegate the latitude to meet those expectations in his or her own way
  4. Inspect the work as needed
  5. Be thankful and give credit

It is worth remembering that the delegation process assumes that you already know how to do the work and understand the responsibility. If you just know that there is a problem to solve, but you haven’t really figured it out, delegation is premature. That’s an entirely different kind of work.

But that’s just basics, and while they are crucial, we can deepen our understanding even more.

The flaw: abdicating instead of delegating responsibility

In his book about entrepreneurship and creating a successful business, The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber talks about the difference between abdication and delegation.

Gerber illustrates the point in a young manager’s life when he has too much to do and finally hires someone to help. He gives the accounting books to that assistant and suddenly feels free! The manager happily lets the assistant keep the books and shifts focus to other work. Only later does the manager realize the assistant has been doing the bookkeeping in ways that he never would have, and sees that the business is really beginning to suffer for it. That’s management by abdication.

Books like First, Break All the Rules, have emphasized the importance of setting clear expectations for outcomes, not micro-managing. Great advice, right? However, in my experience, there are some types of work for which the process of the work is itself valuable (those in the user experience field will agree, I think). If I only manage the outcome and not the process, I may really be missing out. Again, Gerber’s abdication.

So if we’re going to delegate effectively, not micro-manage, but instead manage by remote control, and still end up with the work done as well as we hope, we do need to know something about teaching the performance and assessing how well the delegate can do the work and what we should expect.

Coaching delegates to master the work

Let’s talk about a model for considering mastery, Shu Ha Ri. Some Agile development thinkers have adapted this concept to software development skills.

English-speaking martial artists have used the translated terms of following, detaching, and fluent, but since we really are moving away from the hand-to-hand nature of martial arts towards more general mastery of work, I prefer mimic, understand, and innovate.

  1. Shu = following = mimic
  2. Ha = detaching = understand
  3. Ri = fluent = innovate

I’ll be the first to call it out: this is a weak model for thinking about such a complex topic as mastery. But it has its uses.

When we delegate work as managers, we can use this model to assess how advanced the delegate’s mastery level is for the work.

For example, let’s use the task of creating a visual sitemap for a website.

To mimic the work is to copy the form of another sitemap and apply it to the website at hand. The layout is similar and the annotations on the map indicate the same analysis as the copied sitemap, even if that analysis isn’t really relevant in this new case. Mostly, it just looks about right and is probably helpful.

To understand the work of creating a sitemap is to include relevant annotations about the organization of content, to tune the layout so related content are near each other in the map and levels of hierarchy are implied by position on the page, and to know how to use it in discussions with members of the team.

To innovate in the work of sitemaps is to create a more appropriate visual vocabulary for the diagram and to show connections drawn from other representations of content, such as content inventories of the same information space to expose relevant facets or perhaps the amount of content in a section, or website analytics to show, for instance, popularity of pages on the sitemap. This kind of innovation work, well executed, should be even more valuable.

For any work that you manage, can you outline what those three levels might look like? With that information in hand, it becomes easier to ask how much mastery you want from a delegate, and of course to see how advanced the delegate is in their mastery.

This model can be a valuable coaching tool for any manager, and adds useful insight for anyone who needs to delegate well.


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