Most managers don’t know how to delegate successfully. Why is that?
“The fundamental secret of the art of management is delegation.”
That’s a quote from Cyril Northcote Parkinson. – Is delegating really a secret? Actually, it isn’t. The principles of delegation are simple.
However, many entrepreneurs and managers still find it difficult.
How to delegate successfully is a challenge.
So the secret seems to lie more in how to successfully implement the principles of delegation in practice. Just knowing the principles isn’t enough.
If you delegate a task consider to whom you delegate, how much you must support and control and how much room for flexibility you have to leave – and avoid micromanagement as well as upward delegation by any means. – But what does delegating mean?
Before we go in greater detail, let’s start with the question:
Why doesn’t delegating work very often?
As a manager, you have to make new decisions every day: What’s important and what’s urgent? Which of your tasks can and which of your tasks should you delegate?
A manager has to concentrate on the essentials. But: If you want to concentrate on the essentials, you have to be able to let go. And that’s where many people fail. Many managers know very well what tasks they should delegate. But they don’t do it. If you ask them why, you will often get the following answers:
“I have to do it by myself, because nobody else does it right anyway!”
“Nobody really knows how to do this but me! “
“By the time I explain it to someone, I’ll have done it myself.”
“I don’t have anyone I can trust and who I can hand this over to.”
Let me cut to the chase:
These excuses won’t help you.
Please don’t get me wrong: I believe you, if you tell me that you don’t have the right employee for the job at the moment. I believe that you’re the best at this. But: If you don’t change this now, it will remain so in the future.
How I learned to delegate.
Let me tell you, how I learned to delegate. In my first start-up company we dealt with vibrations on heavy machinery. Just as a doctor uses a stethoscope to assess a person’s heartbeat, we used sensors to analyse the vibrations of gears, pumps and motors. We developed and sold condition monitoring systems, but also performed diagnostics as a service for our customers on site.
Since I had already worked intensively on diagnosing machines for many years before the company was founded, I was usually the one who carried out such diagnoses for our customers. I was the expert at the time.
As our company grew, I had to decide to delegate this task. After all, it was no longer my job as managing director to be knee-deep in oil and to diagnose machines on site. It was difficult for me to accept this change at the beginning – to be honest: I loved to do this work and I loved to be the expert – although I understood that this shouldn’t be my role any longer.
Furthermore, none of my staff seemed good enough to do the analyses as I did. So I micromanaged my employees in the beginning.
But, because I was traveling worldwide to get new clients and to grow our company, I couldn’t find the time to control and micromanage as I did before.
I just had such a lot of other work on my plate – and I was traveling a lot. So I had to let go and delegate these tasks to my employees – whether I wanted to do it or not.
Let your employees learn.
Of course, in the beginning some things didn’t run so smoothly: My employees analysed differently than I did. They didn’t meet dealines. They weren’t very efficient. They made mistakes that I thought would not have happened to me – but then – after some time, they learned from their mistakes. They improved. After one year, the results of some of my employees were not only as good as mine but even significantly better.
That was fascinating. After this experience it was much easier for me to delegate tasks. I know – if I delegate – that it will probably get worse and take longer – but then there’s a good chance that it will not only be done just as well, but even better.
Delegating is an investment
See it this way: Delegating is an investment in employee training – it costs time and energy in the beginning. But it’s worth it.
Give your employees the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Let them make mistakes. If you delegate a task that you have successfully done in the past, you will probably get a worse result the first time. But that’s only understandable. After all, you’ve been able to learn how to do it for months or years.
Of course, you cannot hand over a difficult task straight to everyone. You can’t just trust that your employee will learn that over time. It doesn’t work that way.
If you want to delegate a task to an employee, you must first assess what experience, what level of knowledge and what skills he or she has for this task. Based on this, you have to specify, control and support to a greater or lesser extent.
But how far do you have to control? How much do you have to specify?
The 5 level of delegation
In order to answer these questions, it is advisable to deal with the 5 levels of delegation. Years ago, I first read about this concept on Michael Hyatt’s blog. I think it’s very useful.
I like to call the first level of delegation: “Execute”. Here you specify everything exactly and in detail. You tell your employee to stick exactly to your specifications:
“Do exactly what I asked you to do.”
In this level you have already researched, analysed and decided everything in detail about the task you delegate!
The problem with this level 1 is. You have to control a lot, you need to know the task in detail. You only have very low trust in the abilities of your employee. That might be ok, if a new hire just started working for you knowing nothing about the task you delegate. But you need to make sure that this changes quickly and that your employee will climb to higher delegation levels.
In the 2nd level of delegation, your employee already has more degrees of freedom. Delegating on this level means: You tell him to familiarize himself with the topic in general, work out options and then consult with you. This 2nd level is called:
“Research the topic and report back.”
In the 3rd level, your employee will work on a topic in detail, develop alternatives and prepare a detailed proposal. He should explain in detail how he intends to carry on in the project. You then decide whether or not to proceed in this way. This 3rd level of delegation is called
“Make a recommendation.”
In level 4, the employee makes the decision, but later tells you what and why he’s made the decision. I call this level:
“Decision with reporting back.”
The top level – level 5 of delegation, is when your employee makes his or her own decision and you have so much confidence in him that a report isn’t even needed. This is Stage 5:
“Decide without reporting back.”
How to delegate with the 5 levels
This example is about delegating a development project.
Mike’s in charge of the development department in a medium-sized Engineering company. They develop and manufacture control and regulation systems. Mike’s department got the order to develop the hardware for a new interface module.
Let’s assume that all of his experienced engineers in his department are working on full capacity. The only employee who could support him in this project is Jack. He’s new in the department. Jack has just finished his studies and has no practical experience. He’s a newbie. Therefore, Mike cannot simply assign the project to him, as he would do with an experienced employee.
Level 1 delegation because Jack is a newbie.
That’s why Mike will delegate the project to Jack on delegation level 1.
Mike takes his time to prepare the project in detail. Based on his many years of experience, he selects which processor, which A/D converter and which memory modules must be used. The process is also clear to him.
He knows which development steps have to be completed. Therefore, he writes down the procedure with exact steps and specifications. Now he hands over this documentation to Jack. Jack will stick exactly to the procedure and gradually work through the steps in order to develop the hardware.
In this 1st level, Jack has little scope for decision on this project. After each small step, he reports the progress of the project to Mike and shows him the results.
This is the first stage of the delegation:
“Do exactly what I have asked you to do.”
It’s a matter of sticking exactly to the guidelines, since the supervisor has already researched, analysed and decided everything important in detail. Of course, this takes a lot of time for the manager. The employee is also quickly under-challenged in this procedure. There’s nearly no freedom to make any decisions.
How to delegate on higher levels?
What would it look like if Mike delegates on level 2? Instead of working with exact specifications, Mike asks Jack to take a close look at the customer requirements and familiarize himself with the topic. After that he’s asked to propose the further actions and steps for the development. The decision to take the next steps, however, falls to Mike.
If delegated on the 3rd level Mike gives even more freedom. He asks Jack to familiarize himself with the topic in detail, to develop different alternative procedures, to select the processor, the A/D converters and the memory modules and then to present the results to Mike. Mike will question the results and then gives his OK for the proposed further procedure.
Be careful with corrections.
What’s important here is that if Mike doesn’t agree with Jack’s proposed decisions, he shouldn’t simply tell Jack that he is wrong and correct him:
“Jack, that A/D converter you chose only has 16 bits. This may be in line with customer requirements, but in the long term it will cause us problems. We must also think about future upgrades. Therefore, use the 24 bit converter instead.”
Lead with questions.
Mike shouldn’t propose the alternative. He should ask questions so that Jack can work out the solution himself. For example, if Mike doesn’t agree with the selection of the A/D converter, he might ask:
“Jack, the A/D converter you’re proposing only works at 16 bits. This meets customer requirements, but there are already the new 24 bit A/D converters on the market. I wonder if they might not be a sensible alternative for this project? What speaks for and what speaks against using the 24 bit A/D converter?”
This procedure costs Mike more time. However, it helps Jack to learn, to think and to develop his skills. In the end, Mike wants Jack to be able to assess this kind of situations and decide on his own in the future.
Give even more freedom in level 4
If Jack were already an experienced hardware engineer, Mike could possibly hand over the project to him with much greater decision-making leeway. For instance delegating on level 4: “Decisions with reporting back”.
Then Mike would only arrange 2 or 3 appointments with Jack during the project. On these dates, Jack will briefly present the current status of the project and the decisions he’s taken so far. So, Mike’s informed in detail, but Jack has already made the decisions, for instance which A/D converter’s to be used. It’s Jacks project. Mike will only be informed.
The – let’s say – premium level is the 5th level: “Decide without reporting back”.
Here, Mike has complete confidence in Jack’s abilities and actions. Mike no longer even needs feedback on the achieved project steps. His confidence in Jack is so high that he assumes that Jack will do the work in the best possible way and no control is needed.
The higher the level of delegation, the higher the trust in the employee. The higher the level, the less time the manager has to spend making decisions, controlling, monitoring and supporting the delegated task.
Tell your employees what you expect from them.
It’s important that you as a manager tell your employee upfront, when you delegate a project, what you expect from him. It has to be crystal clear what kind of freedom and authority your employee has to accomplish the delegated project.
Now you know how to delegate, we will talk in the next episode about micro-management. What exactly is it, why should you avoid it and how can you avoid it?
The inspiring quote
“The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling while they do it.”