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Goldilocks and the Three Bosses Show How to Delegate Just Right

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Some delegation styles are just too big

Mac knew that he would need a report at the end of the project but it was moving so fast he just figured he would find someone to write it later. On Thursday, he asked Goldilocks if she had time to do it. Not wanting to disappoint him, she said she had other commitments but would try. When she finally sat down at her computer on Saturday night, she realized she had very little direction. She didn’t really understand what Mac’s expectations were since they only had one brief conversation. Frustrated and busy with other things – not to mention not even being Mac’s direct report – she informed Mac on Monday morning she didn’t have a chance to work on it.

Since the client was expecting the report in two days, Mac turned to Margret who always saves him when this happens. She pulled an all-nighter and turned in a great twelve page report just in time for the client. When Mac reviewed her work, he was disappointed that it was so long because he meant for it to only be two pages even though he didn’t tell her that.

Some delegation styles are just too small

Mike knew that he would need a report at the end of the project. He’d prefer to write it himself but thought he wouldn’t have time. He asked his team if anyone would be interested in writing it and no one volunteered so he assigned it to Goldilocks. Goldilocks asked what he wanted in the report and Mike couldn’t articulate more than a few minor points. Goldilocks completed the report and sent it to Mike. Mike spent nearly an entire day rewriting the report even though it was acceptable the way it was. Mike cc’ed Goldilocks when he sent the final report off to the client. When she looked at the final version, she wondered why Mike wasted her time if he was going to just write it himself anyway.

There is only one way to delegate that is just right

Gina knew that she would need a report at the end of the project. Before the project began moving too fast, she determined what the report should contain, the appropriate writing style and length. Next, she looked around for someone on the team skilled at writing quickly to assign it to. A few weeks before the report was due, she asked Goldilocks if she could write it; she said “yes” and cleared her schedule for a day. Later that day, Gina sent Goldilocks an email with instructions on everything she needed to know about writing the report (contents, source materials, deadline, etc.).

Gina knew from experience she could trust Goldilocks to complete the report independent of more oversight. She still checked in with her a week out to ensure she was still able to complete it on time and make sure any last minute questions were answered. Goldilocks turned in on time and Gina on made a few minor changes to the report before sending it on to the client. Because she had planned ahead, articulated clearly and provided oversight the report was exactly what both she and the client were looking for. She called Goldilocks to thank her for producing quality work on time, again.

Here is what you need to know to be a great delegator (and great collaborative manager)

Delegation is one of the most challenging skills for managers to learn. Managers must exercise enormous self-control when they delegate. We receive no real training on how to do this. Typically, we have to learn by (oftentimes poor) example. Delegating in a collaborative environment is even tougher because you may be asking people who don’t directly report to you to complete tasks under your supervision. If delegating is part of your role, strive to be great at it and people will notice. Here are a few considerations to help you ensure you can delegate just right.

  • Ask before you task.

    Why when you call someone do you always first ask “Is this a good time to talk?” If you don’t and just start talking their ear off they don’t have a chance to politely tell you it isn’t a good. The delegation process also benefits by requesting verbal acceptance. You don’t just assign, you explain what the task and expectations are and ask someone flat out if they can and will accept responsibility. Otherwise, they may hesitantly accept like in the first scenario but not be committed. If they answer no, you now have a comfortable way to discuss why not.

  • Determine how much discretion you are delegating

    Sometimes you ask someone to do something and give them full discretion on how to do it. Other times, how it is done is important so it’s also dictated. Know from the start where you fall on this continuum and make sure that is articulated clearly from the start. This will vary depending on the task and who you are working with. While people may not say anything to you, they certainly will complain to others if you don’t stick with what you pick.

  • Always provide clear expectations in writing

    It doesn’t matter how complex a task is, you should always send a follow-up in writing with everything they need to know to manage their expectations. Most tasks will likely have many messages. First, write an acknowledgment and thank you for accepting responsibility, a summary of expectations, deadlines, budget notes, and key details. They will likely return to this email a few times to make sure they are on track. In the scenario above, Gina proved the more details, the better. If there is a problem later on with accountability, this email serves as documentation which is key to building accountability.

  • Monitor progress, but with clear boundaries

    Don’t ask, task, then forget about it. You delegate responsibility but still ultimately hold onto accountability. It is still important to track progress and periodically chat to see there are any questions or issues for you. People are more likely to bring them up if you contact them then if they have to contact you. Another benefit to checking in regularly is that you can steer the task back on track if it starts drifting. If you wait until the end it is usually too late without major repercussions. Remember while you are checking in about the amount of discretion you are agreed to.

  • Don’t be shy about accountability

    Sometimes people commit to complete a task then either can’t, don’t, or won’t. It is tempting to just finish up for them and then never speak about it again. However, it is not normally the right thing to do – even in collaborative group volunteer settings. Accountability is the foundation of respect and holding people accountable for their commitment may mean some troubleshooting. Talk to them and try to figure out if there was something you could do better, they could do better, or the system that supports the work could do better.

Mac trusted that the work will get done with minimal direction from him and ended up without the report he was thinking about. Mike didn’t trust anyone to do the work the way he would do it himself so it got done twice. Gina was a skilled delegator. She understood that she needed to ask before she tasked, determine and communicate how much discretion she was delegating, documenting expectations, monitoring progress and holding everyone (not just Goldilocks) accountability.

About Megan Wilmoth

Megan Wilmoth has built and managed products ranging from custom software for Fortune 1000 companies to marketing platforms for manufactures. She’s overseen work that impacts hundreds of organizations, thousands of individuals and millions of data points. Her ability to plan and mitigate allow her to succeed in whatever is thrown her way. She is President of Planosaurus, a consulting firm that helps organizations plan to do more with less.

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  • Megan Wilmoth,
  • July 27, 2015

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