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Delegate! But, Don’t Fire-and-Forget!

2011 March 6
tags: Getting Things Done, GTD, Leading, postaweek2011
by Andrew   

effective delegationDo you find yourself with more tasks, assignments, or projects than you could possibly finish yourself?  Even if you could finish them all yourself, should you?  If you have staff, coworkers, or teammates for whom you’re responsible in any way…workload management, professional development, or mentoring…you need an effective way to delegate.  Fire-and-forget is not the answer, but here’s one solution…

A fire-and-forget weapon is a type of weapon that, once launched, does not require further input from the launcher or another command-and-control system to ensure it gets to its target.  Examples of other systems might be fly-by-wire, radio-transmitted updates to the guidance system, or the identification of the desired target by “painting” with one of several methods.  The point is, a fire-and-forget weapon is self-guided once launched and doesn’t need additional external check-ins by its “manager” to achieve its goal.

People do not work well as launch-and-forget systems. So, if you’re consistently frustrated because the things you “delegate” don’t get done, or because you’re having trouble keeping up with what, exactly, you’ve delegated…to whom you’ve delegated it…or when you’re supposed to expect something back…keep reading.

There are several widely-accepted (generally accepted?) principles of effective delegation, and I’ll list them here:

  • Clearly identify the task to be delegated
  • Ensure you have the resources to commit to the execution of the task
  • Ensure the person to whom you plan to delegate is given the resources and authority to execute the task, and that you hold them accountable
  • Ensure the person to whom you plan to delegate is capable of executing the task without your constant intervention.  Note I didn’t say any intervention.  Periodic check-ins are appropriate, necessary, and usually welcomed by the delegate.
  • Effectively communicate your expectations for the task’s outcome and duration
  • Conduct the appropriate follow-up, reinforcing expectations as necessary, providing additional resources when needed and when available, and take corrective action when required

Clearly identify the task

First off, you need to know what it is that you need done before you try to give it to someone else to accomplish.  Either develop the background information sufficiently yourself if you’re identifying the task for delegation so that you can explain it effectively, or ensure you obtain the appropriate information from the person who gave the action to you.  The fact that your boss gave you a task or action does not automatically preclude you from delegating it or pieces of it.  If the person assigning the task to you doesn’t have all the information available for you to effectively delegate the task, you’ve got some research to do yourself before you pass it on.

Ensure resources are available

Regardless of whether the resources are money, time, additional people, or equipment, they must be available to you to commit to the person to whom the task is being assigned, and they must be manageable by the same person.  If you retain all of the authority to assign/commit/obligate funds, people, or time, then you haven’t delegated anything.  If you’re unable to make these resources available to the intended delegate, then reconsider whether the task should be delegated.

Confirm the capability of the delegate

Not all people are capable of executing tasks at the same level of proficiency, even if they’re nominally the same salary range or job type.  Individual capabilities vary, and if you’re responsible for managing or developing personnel, you must take into account individual capabilities when determining what to delegate, how much of it to delegate, the frequency and type of follow-up, and whether to delegate because the intended person is fully capable of executing the task without your help or because it’s a good developmental opportunity for them.  Remember, if you’re getting surprising push-back from people to whom you delegate, some people need and desire no more than an occasional “how’s it going with project A?” to feel supported and valued, and others need a considerable amount of your time to feel you care about their accomplishments and to provide you feedback on how they think things are progressing.

Communicate the task effectively

Take care to provide clear direction and expectations when communicating tasks for delegation.  Nothing sabotages your effectiveness or that of the people with whom you work faster than poor communication (regardless of the cause).  One way that I’ve managed delegation effectively is to use a spreadsheet similar to the following to keep up with all of the delegated tasks that are significant enough to require documentation of completion.  The system isn’t overly pretty, but it’s ridiculously scalable and you can pretty it up with as much static and conditional formatting as you like.  There is a minimal amount of conditional formatting provided (and explained with included comments) to make the system immediately usable, should you decide to try it.  There are certainly plenty of PC-based, Mac-based, and smartphone-based project or task tracking systems available, but the main drawback to each is they’re very difficult to use in an environment where everyone isn’t on the same system.  In a future piece, I will review several smartphone-based ways of tracking tasks, and several of the apps in my piece on top phone productivity apps lend themselves to task tracking to varying degrees.

  Delegation Tracking Spreadsheet (39.5 KiB, 1,801 hits)


Follow up

Following up delegated tasks is essential.  It reinforces your commitment to the task, it demonstrates you care about the performance of the work, and it reflects concern for the people with whom you work.  The spreadsheet provided above, the apps listed in the linked article, or some other system you choose to use that effectively helps manage your delegations is crucial to following up delegations.  If you can’t remember what you delegated, when it was due, or who has it, your credibility will suffer, your effectiveness will dwindle, and your stress will increase dramatically.

The single most frequent argument I hear about why delegations are not properly tracked and managed is “it takes too much time.”  Well, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.  And, if you really don’t have the time to properly annotate a centralized delegation system to ensure work gets done, then at least email a summary of the delegated task to the delegate and put a copy of the email in a @Waiting For folder or a project-specific folder so you (and they) can be on the same page about what is expected.  This method won’t work too well for document the periodic check-ins and additional needed actions unless you email and file those too, but it’s a start.

The heart of stress-free effectiveness is smoothly managing filing and the next steps required to complete things.  Whether you use GTD or another system, a scalable and adaptable tracking system for keeping up with delegated tasks is essential.

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