Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Don't delegate! (unless they're ready for it)

Happy new year, and welcome back! I hope you all had a safe and sane holiday season. Now back to our show...

One of my favorite questions to ask when I interview potential managers is this:
“Pretend that you need a certain task done. You have decided to delegate it to one of your workers. You have called me, the lucky one, into your office to hand this task off to me. Tell me what you would say to convey this.”
The typical response goes something like this:
“Eric, I need you to do this thing for me. Let’s have a discussion about it so I can explain it to you, tell you why it’s really important, then I’ll walk you through a good way to attack it. We can meet every day to discuss your progress.”
The manager candidate thinks he has laid out a great plan. He will coach me very carefully. We’ll be a team. He will not let me fail. But, he has jumped to many conclusions. What if I have previous experience doing this task? What if I already know how important it is? Or what if it isn’t really important at all, but it needs to get done anyway? Or might I learn more from this project if I am actually given the opportunity to fail at it on my own?

For example, what if the candidate was the dad, I was the child, and the task that needed to be done was taking out the trash? Would we really need to have a discussion about why it’s important? Would dad need to walk me through the process, given that I’d probably dumped the trash a million times already? Would we really need progress updates? How about a Gantt chart? I only need to know what to do, not how to do it, and I don’t need to be sold on the value of getting the trash out. It has to be done.

Every discussion like this needs to be fine-tuned to the particular assignee. As a manager, before you determine how to launch someone into a task, you must account for past experience, motivations, overall effort size, and many other factors. Doing it the wrong way can lead to outright confusion, failure, demotivation, and resentment.

The first item to ascertain is whether the employee has ever done this type of task before. If you don’t know, ask. If he has, you should go into much less detail on how to handle this particular instance. (How does it make you feel when someone explains how to do something you know darned well?) Instead, give the guy a couple of pointers and general guidelines for how you personally want it handled… if you care.

But if your guy hasn’t had the necessary experience with this task, you need to determine the best way to kick it off. You have to determine each individual’s maturity level for this type of task. The level will vary across different types of tasks, but overall, most people tend to fall more or less into one of three general categories that I call: tell, sell, and solo.

Tell Me

Some folks are perfectly happy to be told exactly what you want and exactly how you want it done. They don’t need detailed explanations of why it’s important, and they don’t function well when the problem is merely delegated to them. This may be due to any number of reasons that doesn't make them bad workers -- it means they respond best to direct instructions. Delegate to them at your own risk. It also means that you should avoid the discussion about how important the task is. Start explaining that, and you will see their eyes glaze over. They are anxious to get started, and now you’re annoying them by keeping them longer. These are the “tell” folks.

Sell Me

These folks can be much like the “tells”, but they have a hard time getting motivated to do the task unless they understand why it is important. You may still need to lay out the method and process for them, but unless you handle the why part too, you can fully expect that the motivation will be missing. Without the sell job, progress will be slow or nil.

Solo Me

The “solo” folks can really be broken down into a couple of subcategories, but basically these are the folks who would much rather devise their own paths to the solution. They may be totally capable of having the entire problem delegated to them, or they might need you to participate with them to some degree. But, for the most part, they are capable of developing an appropriate solution on their own. They require a minimum of progress checking, and they have no desire for you to dictate to them how to do their job. Try it, and you will generate plenty of harsh feelings.

Summing it up

In many cases, you will watch your employees morph over the years as they move from “tell” to “sell” and eventually to some form of “solo”. That is fun. If you can, help them out with something like, "Would you like to take a shot at coming up with the design/process for this on your own?" If they accept, just keep a very close eye on whether that's working or not and step in quickly if needed.

But, even if someone doesn't move along the curve, they're still valuable. As long as you learn each person’s maturity level, you can use it to get him off to the best possible start on each task.

PS: If I hear one more radio/TV commercial talk about a website address and refer to the "/" character as "backslash," I'm just gonna lose it.


  1. Yeah, it's a FORWARD slash, and the FORWARD is usually silent.

  2. I don't like people in my "tech" company switching them...hate that.