What does it take to delegate better?
When telling people what we need done, how do we strike the balance between being overly prescriptive, and recklessly lax? How can we be sure what we want in the beginning will be what we get at the end? A story I read recently involving a frozen lake, a pack of wolves, and a canoe full of beer can serve as a guide in helping us master the art of delegation.
Prefer to listen? Check out the podcast version. Otherwise, scroll on!
Lost in the Wilderness
One of the worst examples of delegation I’ve ever come across I found in the book Never Cry Wolf (affiliate link) – an amusing true tale authored by naturalist Farley Mowat. Years ago, the Canadian Wildlife Service sent him out to the barren lands of sub-arctic Canada to study wolves. These were his marching orders:
“You will proceed by chartered air transport in a suitable direction for the requisite distance and thereupon establish a base at a point where it has been ascertained there is an adequate wolf population and where conditions are generally optimal to the furtherance of your operations.”
Clear as mud, right? Who decides what is a “suitable” direction or the “requisite distance,” and what constitutes an “adequate wolf population” or “optimal” conditions?
It should come as no surprise that soon after his departure, his superiors had no idea where he really was. Through a comedy of misunderstandings, for a while they even believed that somehow he had made his way to South America.
Things didn’t go so well from Mowat’s perspective, either. As the tale unfolds, he finds himself deposited by bush plane on a nameless frozen lake, and left alone with mounds of equipment. His radio didn’t work, and the canoe he brought wouldn’t be very useful until the ice melted.
In fact, he almost didn’t even make it that far. The night before the flight his canoe was strapped to the bottom of the plane. Without telling the pilot, Mowat filled it with several cases of beer. Maybe he thought it would somehow help him survive his ordeal, but in the end it nearly killed him. Burdened by the excess weight, the plane narrowly missed crashing into the trees at the end of the runway.
The story that follows is filled with accident, amusing anecdote, and unexpected discovery. Lacking clear guidance from the Wildlife Service, he soon finds himself well off the expected path. By the end of his summer in the wilderness, Mowat’s findings were far different from what the Wildlife Service expected, and even directly contradicted national policy.
But should they have expected anything different?
Go Do The Thing…
As leaders, one key part of our job is to delegate and coordinate. Yet all too often we pay little attention to how we do these tasks, and then are surprised when the results aren’t what we thought they would be.
Mowat had instructions, but they were so vague as to be unhelpful or even counter-productive. The verbiage may have sounded official, and putting it in writing is a good first step, but useful detail? Nope.
I once had a boss who told me, “Never ask for guidance, because you might get some.” His idea was that the less we are told, the greater our latitude to do as we please. I get what he was saying. Some might even say leaving everything so vague is an act of empowerment.
I think it’s more one of neglect.
Cogs in a Machine
It can help to think of the process as like asking someone to make part of a machine. Too little guidance, and that cog we’re having them build may end up uselessly spinning on its own, like a car engine permanently stuck in idle. Worse, it might end up like these gears: so poorly placed that it jams up the rest of the machinery and brings everything to a grinding halt.
The flip side of that coin is too much direction. The risk here is that in our efforts to be clear, we become overly prescriptive. Then we find ourselves hovering over our teammate’s every action, and stepping in with the micrometer every three minutes. With all that effort, we may as well make the thing ourselves. We have become that nemesis of all skilled workers: the micromanager.
Meanwhile, with zero latitude for discretion, creativity, or initiative, our frustrated teammate retreats into inactivity, while trust and motivation fall like a skydiver without a parachute: things won’t end well.
So how do we straddle the line between leaving our junior naturalist stranded on a frozen lake in the wilderness, or getting involved every time a teammate wants to sharpen a pencil?
Here are several ways we can delegate better.
Making a Good Start
Getting better at this begins with putting more energy into the start of the entire process. If we can communicate clearly what we need, and how it fits into the larger picture, we can save ourselves a lot of pain later on as the process unfolds. Here some ways to approach making a good start.
1. Focus on the outcome. First, we can focus our thinking more on the end result, and less on the process that gets us there. If we need an omelet, we don’t necessarily need to tell them how to crack the egg – let them work that out; they might even be better at it than we are. That’s a good thing.
As General George Patton is famous for saying, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”
Certainly, there are parameters and processes they will need to abide by, but the more latitude we can allow, the greater the chance we will be pleasantly surprised by what they come up with. The key here is not blocking, but unlocking the potential contained between the other person’s ears.
2. Write it out. This can be helpful both for us and the person taking on the project. The act of putting in words what we want done can help us to reach clarity. The written direction can also serve as a common point of reference as the project proceeds.
Do this in advance of delegating the task, and it can help us crystallize our thoughts.
- What should the end result look like?
- What resources will they need to accomplish it?
- What priority does the project have?
- What decisions do we need to be involved in?
- What checkpoints should we put in place to ensure the project is on track?
It can help to picture ourselves in the position of the person taking on the task. If we were to suddenly find ourselves standing on a frozen lake in the tundra, what would it be helpful to know?
I’d add, too, that it’s best if we keep things simple, and avoid boiler plate jargon. Mowat’s instructions may have sounded official, but in his moment of need, the best use for the written guidance he got would have been as tinder to start a warming fire.
3. Discuss. If the project is important, then it deserves more than a drive-by tasking in the hallway. Dedicate time to a focused discussion. We can share our vision of the outcome, and see if they have any initial thoughts or questions.
After that first talk, ask them to come back and outline how they plan to approach the project. This will give them a chance to raise any questions that may not have occurred to them at first. At the same time, it will help us rest easier knowing that they do not intend to travel to the wrong continent, or overload their canoe with unnecessary “provisions.”
Delegate Better – The Takeaway
To delegate better, it helps to devote energy at the beginning to increase the chances of getting what we need at the end. By clarifying the outcome we seek, writing out a clear plan, and having a focused discussion about it, we can ensure that the component we have them building will mesh neatly with all the other parts of the machine.
One last thing. When we talk of getting the result we want, there’s another outcome that we should account for. It’s the effect the project has on the teammate who we charged with carrying it out.
Delegating better as leaders means not only getting the job done, but strengthening the team in the process. As we put together our delegation plan, we should seek to do it in a way that develops skills, builds trust, reinforces team culture, follows the vision, and stays true to our cornerstone values.
That may sound like a lot, but if we really do learn to delegate better, we end up with more time on our hands.
One of the things we can spend that extra time on is….delegating better.
For more specifics on mastering the art of delegation, check out this post series; each features a short video.
Credit: Involute Gear Wheel gif by Claudio Rocchini – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1309245