Delegation part 1: Providing clear directions

The key to delegation is to provide clear directions.Imagine you are shipping something across the country – family heirlooms, a dining set, an old loveseat for your son, the recent college graduate. Now, imagine when the guy driving the truck arrives, you provide fuzzy directions – a town, but no street address, your son’s first name only, no deliver-by due date, no hint of how to get there. You slap him on the back on the way out the door, “You’ll be great, buddy, just figure it out.” Sheer madness, right? This is how people delegate tasks all the time.

By all measures, delegation is a challenging time management skill. People often lament – “by the time I explain it, I could just do it myself” or “every time I delegate something I have to re-do the work anyway.” At the root of blurry direction are usually two feelings, either a belief that your guidance might cramp the other person’s style; or worse, “I don’t know what I want, but I know it when I see it” (fourteen words sure to make anyone with services-for-hire shudder).

Staying vague is costly–you waste bundles of money paying people who don’t produce what you want or need, or redoing the work 10 times, as you change your mind. You also pay in gobs of time – taking over tasks that weren’t on your to-do list, stealing focus and energy you can’t afford.

Whether you’re delegating at the office, bringing on a landscaper or hiring a photographer for your daughter’s upcoming nuptials (as I am), for three ways to improve your “guiding” skills:

Do a gut check. The best delegators are people with keen analytical minds – they can break almost any process down into disparate pieces. Contrast that with more intuitive thinkers who figure things out by “doing” them. Yet, within two seconds of getting back something they delegated–they instantly see what is wrong. That’s because they really do have core criteria they measure all work by; it’s just buried deep inside. To tune into your “gut” feelings when assigning a task, ask yourself, “when this comes back to me, what will I be looking for?” (e.g. originality, accurate spelling, no repetition). Write those non-negotiables down and share them with the person you’ve assigned the job. Establishing clear criteria for success allows the person to self-evaluate their work before they deliver.

Provide Direction. One of the hardest things to learn – in delegation and in life – is that most people don’t think like you do. You want them to, you wish they would, but really they just don’t. (I think you’re lucky to be “in synch” with three out of ten people you live or work with.) If you have an idea about the route you’d like someone to take to get something done, don’t be shy – tell them. How much direction you provide will depend on the level of expertise you’ve hired for the job, e.g. beginners will appreciate more detailed direction, while a peer or expert won’t need as much (as long as the end goal is clear). This isn’t micromanagement. It’s empowering the person to deliver what they’ve been hired to do.

Move up the deadline. No matter how skilled you become at setting clear expectations and providing the perfect blend of direction and encouragement, you can’t expect perfection. One hundred percent accuracy on a delegated task is like a hole-in-one on the PGA tour. Never set deadlines for delegated work dangerously close to final delivery dates. Build enough cushion into the schedule so you have time to review the work and send it back for fixes.

If you were hiring someone to transport your possessions, of course you’d tell the driver where, when and to whom to deliver the goods – you might even suggest an ideal route (to avoid traffic, pot holes, speed traps, etc.). The finer details-exact speed, which rest stops, what station on the radio dial – is up to the driver.

To get good at the intricate dance that is delegation, the strategy (perhaps counter-intuitively) is to study your own patterns first and get clear about what you want. Is your way the only way? No. Is it the way you prefer? Yes. Assure yourself that what you want is okay, and make your life easier by telling people what you want the first time.

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