By: Richard Eaton

Winter 2020 Issue

"Delegation is not a binary thing. There are shades of grey between dictatorship and anarchy." - Jurgen Appelo, Author and Speaker

One of the most common concerns that senior leaders share with me is their lack of time and resources. They never seem to have enough of it.  As noted in a variety of studies related to time management at the Executive level, many CEOs routinely described ‘managing time’ as one of their greatest challenges. 

The consequences of this lack of time are familiar to people in just about every workplace: a higher risk of organizational underperformance and senior executive / staff burnout.

What is the best way for senior executives to find the time they feel they need to do an even better job, individually and corporately, and have a positive work/life balance?  One well known approach is to delegate work to others. Senior leaders who do not delegate run the risk of creating a dictatorship at their own expense and the expense of others. On the other hand, those who delegate too much, or unwisely, risk anarchy.

Even those open to delegating sometimes discover the hard way that delegation is not always a time-winning panacea. It can be challenging to determine what tasks can, and cannot, be delegated. I’ve noticed that many of my clients view delegation through the following two dimensions: 

1) Staff experience levels, and;   
2) Task complexity.   

Most know intuitively that when their staff are less experienced and the task is more complex, they are less likely to delegate. But what if there was some kind of simple tool that a decision maker could use to quickly and effectively make delegation decisions on a more consistent basis? This might help increase the certainty, consistency and transparency of decision-making processes with obvious benefits for everyone, not least the decision maker themselves.

More importantly, it might also clear up Apello’s ‘shades of grey between a dictatorship and anarchy’. Below is a simple matrix designed to support leaders in their decision on whether or not to delegate. It rests upon the two key questions most executives ask before making this decision.

1) How complex is the task?, and  
2) How experienced is my staff?  

To Delegate or Not to Delegate, that is the Question...
The matrix provided below can help you determine, first of all, if you should delegate a task or not. If the answer is ‘yes’, it can also help you determine the levels of preparation that might be required before you delegate. It can also help clarify who might need more support during the task completion process: 

Quadrant 1: Delegate more complex tasks to more experienced staff: Higher risk decision, more preparation. 
The decision to delegate more complex tasks to more experience staff generally falls into the higher risk category. Intuitively, senior leaders might feel that more experienced staff are more capable of taking on more challenging assignments. But, as you’ve no doubt seen, just because you have a lot of experience doesn’t mean that you know how to solve certain problems. As a result, you may need a greater degree of preparation - and to build a more blended team approach of some kind - for even more senior staff to successfully take on the trickier tasks that fall into Quadrant 1. 

Quadrant 2: Delegate more complex tasks to less experienced staff. Lower risk decision.
The low risk decision here is, of course, ‘don’t delegate’. Usually, less experienced staff are not ready to take the lead on more complex tasks. However, don’t always exclude less experienced people from broader project teams taking on more complex tasks. You might benefit from having some of those fresh faces and new ideas on the job.

Quadrant 3: Delegate less complex tasks to less experienced people. Higher risk decision, more preparation. 
This is a higher risk decision mainly because less experienced staff may not have the skills to succeed with even a relatively simple task. There are ample opportunities here for the professional development of more junior staff given the right leadership or mentoring though. As a result, more preparation may be required before delegating Quadrant 3 tasks to less experienced staff. 

Quadrant 4: Delegate less complex tasks to more experienced staff. 
I’ve assumed that this is a ‘no brainer’ decision for many of the same reasons as Quadrant 2: you are more confident in delegating tasks to more experienced staff. The caution here is that more experienced staff might become disinterested in their role if they are constantly having to manage simpler, more routine tasks. As with Quadrant 3, there may be an opportunity here for newer staff to be mentored by more experienced staff using the less complex task as a suitable learning tool - and build in more opportunities for newer staff members to evolve into leadership roles. Regardless, less preparation will likely be required prior to making a Quadrant 4 delegation decision. 

How to Be More ‘Delegation Ready
What does good preparation look like for being ‘delegation ready’? Clearly, there is some level of preparation required before most delegation decisions can be made, and the more effective an organization is, the easier it is to delegate more types of tasks, more often, to more people, with less risk.

‘Delegation ready’ organizations are those with high levels of effectiveness in three key dimensions:  

The vision, mission, goals, strategies, and tactics are the fuel that helps propel an organization toward its purpose. Direction gives meaning to action and creates the shortest distance between two points. 

Daily tasks and deliverables yield their best results when business processes are clear and strong and aligned with organizational objectives. Processes facilitate the alignment of action with direction. 

People are behind the wheel. People have the skills, capacity, and impetus to translate strategic intent into reality. Ultimately, people and the culture they create drive an organization towards its chosen future. 

I’ve engaged with dozens of organizations to help them conduct a self-assessment leading to a ‘big reveal’ on their levels of effectiveness and, by extension, how delegation ready they are. Unfortunately, few organizations self-identify as being effective ‘right out of the gate’, with the majority reporting their start-state readiness levels at 60% or less.

I’ve discovered that, to become more effective, most organizations will need to refresh their Direction (Strategic Management) and Processes (Continuous Improvement). The People dimension is usually addressed concurrently through involving a wide cross section of staff in these effectiveness improvement initiatives; assuming that you can delegate that, of course. 

Our key learning from all these experiences? Given the right kind of visionary, empowering leadership, anything is possible. So, if you are the right kind of empowering, visionary leader, committed to engaging everyone in a journey to increase your organization’s effectiveness, you are far more likely to be able to delegate well, do well and be well.

Richard Eaton is a co-founder of Berlineaton a management consulting firm that specializes in continuous improvement, strategy & execution, and leader development.

When Richard isn’t climbing mountains or otherwise enjoying the great outdoors with his family, he works with visionary leaders and teams who are committed to delivering stronger futures for their organizations. To learn more, visit www.berlineaton.com