Why delegation isn’t working, and what to do about it

After my last article on why productivity won’t solve your problems, a reader emailed me with a suggestion:

“Excellent post. How about extending it to cover a third option – not loss or delay, but hand-over to another network. Internet peering and all that.”

To put it differently:

“How about delegating or outsourcing work as a way of dealing with the overwhelm of managing infinity?”

Delegation vs. Infinity.  Infinity wins. But….

Everyone knows delegation is a good idea, but hard and frustrating to put into practice.  So often we feel it would be better and quicker to do the darn thing ourselves!   So we find it hard to decide to delegate, and find it harder to put it into practice.

But even more than that, we find delegation never actually frees us up in the way that we’d hoped.

You delegate something but your day is as hectic as ever.

What happened there?

In a word, infinity. It’s the reality that we are facing almost infinite demands on our time these days, and we need to realise three crucial things:

  1. Delegation cannot deal with infinity.  It can be a great way to grow capacity (supply) – but in the face of infinite demand it can never resolve the inbalance.  Prioritisation (managing loss and delay) is always going to be essential.
  2. Delegation, like any other capacity-increasing strategy, does carry a cost.  There will be an investment of time and money.  Oftentimes this will be a good investment, but it needs to be thought through.

However, delegation can help us operate at our highest level, and so it is a great tool. It can’t relieve us from the need to ruthlessly prioritise, but it can increase our ‘bandwidth’ and capacity to get things done.  In fact, it’s an essential tool.  Delegators can and will get more done, faster, and will expand their impact at a far greater rate than the ‘hoarding operator’ who just takes the work and knuckles down.

Delegators deliver.

How to decide what to delegate

OK, so how can we focus on helpful, practical things to delegate?

What exactly should we delegate?  I would examine tasks through three filters:

FILTER 1: Repetition – is the task recurring?

The first time a task is delegated it’s likely to involve more work for the person doing the delegating, as a delegate is found, the task explained, questions answered, the work reviewed and corrected, and so forth.  Delegating a one-off task can be quite inefficient. Recurring tasks have a much bigger payback as the task gets done in an increasingly efficient and low-touch way.

What recurring activities do you engage in that might be candidates for delegation?

FILTER 2: Runway – how close is the deadline?

Urgent tasks simply don’t have the runway to accommodate the upfront work of delegation and the fact the work may be done slower and with more review cycles by the delegate. If a task is urgent, it can be hard to delegate.

Of those recurring activities, which of them have a long enough runway before their due date, for them to be considered for delegation?

FILTER 3: Relative strength – is this activity playing to my most unique and valuable strengths?

If so, I am flying in my ‘superhero zone’ and should not delegate.  If it’s not the most valuable and differentiated area of my competency, I should delegate even if I still feel I’m better equipped than the other person to do the job.

For example, if I am 10X better at writing reports than anyone in my department, and 5X better at formatting them, I should delegate the formatting and concentrate on the writing!  This will maximise my results.

Of your recurring, long-runway activities, which of them are areas of low to moderate relative strength?  Start to plan to delegate these.

So there you are – the delegation zone is found where there is a repetitive task, a runway of time before the deadline, and where the task is not in the ‘superhero zone’ of my highest relative strength.

Now take action, go ahead and delegate something! What’s it going to be?

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