Delegation 101

2010 May 11

I’ve been around a number of managers who become frustrated when employees are assigned a task, are given sufficient time to complete the task, and then later seem to have completely forgotten what was delegated to them. For those managers, the following can be a process that changes your life. It’s a simple process that I learned managing large projects in my corporate days. I later realized that it’s nearly universally applicable for anything that needs to get done. It is very simple, but it’s deceptively difficult to execute in a way that is effective.

The basis of this process is a simple action item. An action item is a task that actually needs to get done- one that has high value for your organization, meaning it does need to be done, and since it needs to be done, it carries some time criticality with it. If it isn’t time critical, it likely doesn’t really need to get done, right?

An action item has 3 parts:

1st part: a clear definition of the deliverable. If you’re working with motivated employees, it’s important to agree on the “what” and to be careful of putting too much into the “how”. This is the part that comes easily to most organizations, because we all talk endlessly about what we need to get done.

2nd part: an owner. This is important: you need one owner. Just one. Period. Even if you have two or more doing the task, appoint one person to be accountable. If you don’t do this, when it comes time to have the task done, it’s guaranteed that a fair percentage of the time you’ll have two or more people looking at each other trying to figure out who was actually supposed to do something. One owner.

3rd part: a specific time for the task to be done. This is crazy hard for many organizations because we don’t like to impose what feel like arbitrary deadlines on valued, busy employees. But this is the single most insidious reason that delegation fails: we know when we need something done, but we won’t tell the person to whom we’ve assigned the task when that is. We want to be respectful of their time and priorities, so we project special intuitive powers on them. We want them to perform at a very high level and read our minds. That’s tough for even for your very top performers.

A lot of company cultures struggle with lack of time discipline. This is paradoxical because everything worth doing is time critical. Your customers have time-based expectations, your competition is competent and aggressive- that filters down to everything that you do. So here are some suggestions:
• Declare a new culture: everyone in your company has the responsibility to assign a completion date to everything. Don’t let a task, large or small, be assigned without a time commitment attached to it.
• In the new cultural norm, everyone in your company has the responsibility to impose a task completion date, and everyone who has one imposed upon them has the right to negotiate a different date if necessary. The goal is to have a bi-lateral agreement that works for everyone, not to impose something that is arbitrarily difficult.
• Declare organizationally what “done Tuesday” means. This is oddly important because different people will assume with a great deal of certainty that it means completely different hours of the day (without an agreement, “done Tuesday” usually means on my desk first thing for the requester, and before midnight for the guy who has to do the work) . It doesn’t matter what you choose- just declare it and do it.
• If this process is to work, you need to declare another important cultural shift: one from “beg for forgiveness” to “ask for permission”. Re-negotiation of deadlines and priorities is a certainty- both by the giver and the receiver of a task. “Beg for forgiveness” after a missed deadline means “not important”. Changing this culture is difficult. As the manager, you have to make it happen.

The very important 4th part: follow-up. Shortly after you’ve assigned an action item, with sufficient clarity of task and ownership, and with clear agreement on the delivery date, your employee will get 5 other all-consuming tasks to work through. So will you. If your company doesn’t have a strong deadline-based culture, your lack of enthusiastic follow-up will be construed correctly as a lack of importance. Everything will snap back to normal, and expectations will be missed once again, all over the place. You have to follow-up.

Simple, and subtly complicated: clarity of task, one owner, a completion date, and follow-up. Let me know how it works for you.

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