Need to Delegate? Don't 'Just Do It!'

"Then I'll do it myself," said the little Red Hen.

While we all know this approach is not sustainable, how often - simply by default - do we fall back on it?

I recently had to consider this as I caught myself stepping back in to pick up a project I previously tried to hand off. All the while, telling myself I needed to do a better job of delegating. (This was a volunteer assignment, by the way, so I couldn't simply fall back on line management authority. Not that line authority is effective in its own right anyway!)

So, how do you delegate successfully? It seems to me the following steps are helpful.

1. Identify what's on your plate. Management consultant Rob Lederer first introduced me to this concept several years ago. He advocates writing down the tasks that take your time in as much detail as possible to help clarify your understanding of how you spend your time. This also allows you to consider each task specifically in terms of what you should do and what others could do. (Jim McGraw, the former Chief Operating Officer at Marion Laboratories and Chairman of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation would emphasize also identifying what you should not do, but that's another post entirely!)

2. Identify a prospective owner of the task(s) that could be transferred. In line management, you may be able to assign a task; in volunteer management, you have to find an owner. This really means you have to sell someone, convince them that this warrants their time and attention. Obviously, you want to pick someone who has the skills and abilities needed to successfully complete the assignment, as well as the capacity (time) and propensity (willingness) to take on this task.

3. Share your vision. How can you hope to get the results you expect unless you clearly communicate those expectations? But there's an inherent conflict between giving ownership ("I believe you can do this and I hope you will.") and giving direction ("Here's what I want you to do and how.") Each approach may be right in certain situations; your key to success is deciding which is most appropriate for this immediate assignment.)

4. Let go. This is the tough one! Allowing ownership means accepting someone else's ideas, style and sometimes, even schedule. (Now do you see the importance of taking care of Step 3 first?) Resist the urge to jump back in and do things your way. I often have to admit it's my own ego that's being threatened, not the end goal of the project. What's more, I also often find that by being open to approaches I hadn't yet considered, we actually produce even better results than I originally expected.

5. Stay informed. It's a delicate dance: how do you turn something over, yet continue to be responsible for the results? Again, this reinforces the importance of the first three steps. The more carefully you plan - and communicate - your continued involvement, the more smoothly (or, less awkwardly) that will happen. The goal is to stay informed and involved, without micromanaging or undermining the authority or abilities of the task's new owner.

6. Give credit where/when credit's due. Recognize willingness ... effort ... accomplishments - whatever you can - to reinforce and enable the new owner's success. Keep your own ego in check. In the words of Harry S. Truman, "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit."

Even - no, especially - if you don't try to do it all yourself!