3 Delegation Problems and How to Fix Them

Ask any plumber and they’ll tell you: leaky pipes are bad news. They lead to decreased intensity, wasted resources, and slower delivery.

There’s a good chance that if you’re leading a team, there are a lot of leaks in your delegation “pipes.”

In my work with small business owners and entrepreneurs, I’ve found that one of their biggest hurdles comes down to delegating tasks to their team. They’ve moved past the point where they can do all of the work themselves and need to spread activities around.

Often, instead of taking responsibilities off of the leader’s shoulders, these attempts at increasing organizational “bandwidth” can actually cause more work! Those in charge finds themselves taking extra hours to micromanage their staff, review projects before they go out, and even re-do projects that aren’t up to snuff.

So what’s going on?

Bad delegation, that’s what. Overwhelmingly, though, it isn’t the team’s fault, so don’t blame them.  It’s almost always due to poor communication from the leader.

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Too often, business owners and managers think that delegation is a simple matter: add someone to the team, give them a list of tasks, and point them in the right direction. When someone has a responsibility delegated to them, there’s often little guidance that comes with it. It’s almost assumed that they are psychic and will understand exactly how to complete what’s expected of them.

That’s one of the main reasons that it creates more work.  When the people passing out the tasks aren’t clear about what the organization needs, they are relying on luck and happenstance to get the results they want.

That dependence on mindreading leads to a lot of re-checking and re-working because there’s no clarity from the start. This is especially prevalent in startups and young businesses when the entrepreneur/founder/owner has a very clear vision of how they want things done, but not a lot of time to explain it.

There is hope.

If poor communication leads to most delegation problems, then the solution is simple: better communication.  You can fix those leaks in your delegation pipes and successfully leverage your team.

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To do so, you need to follow the three “W’s” of delegation.  You have to directly and explicitly share the what, when, and why of a specific project.

What—You have to clearly explain what you want done, emphasis on clearly.

Too often we outline projects in vague terms and fail to provide a clear expectation for our team member. Have you ever told someone to “create a report,” “research options,” or  to “take care of this”?  What do any of those really mean?

You may have an idea in your mind, but if you can’t clearly communicate that idea, it’s pointless.

Practice giving specific, concrete objectives when you delegate. It might feel funny at first because you aren’t used to it, but you’ll get over that when you see how effective it is.

For example, instead of “research options,” you could say “please search online for at least five providers and find out pricing, how long it takes to install, and what kind of reviews they’ve received.”  This way the finished result has a much better chance of matching what you had in mind.

When—You are providing two valuable pieces of information to your team member when you give them a deadline.

Of course, you are giving your team a set expectation for the finish point of the project. More importantly, you are giving them parameters for how long they should spend working on it. In other words, you are letting them know the level of detail and effort you want from them and the relative importance of the project.

Consider the report example from earlier: “I would like to get this report by the end of business tomorrow. Spend two hours on the research, and don’t spend more than an hour constructing the spreadsheet.” That’s a lot different than saying “Take all next week to create this report because it has to be perfect.”

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Deadlines give people the context they need to dial their efforts up or down.  It’s always painful when someone spends an exorbitant amount of time on a project that only needed 15 minutes because they didn’t know it wasn’t that important.

Why – You have to give your team context for the project.

This is where most delegation fails. We’re afraid that we have to spend hours explaining why we want something done, so instead we share nothing. In reality, you don’t have to give your team member your entire business plan and vision for the future. What you do want to provide is a framework that can help guide their work processes.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that people are motivated by purpose. Not necessarily capital-P purpose, but they want to understand how their work fits into a larger whole. Just about everyone hated pointless “busywork” when they were in grade school, and they still avoid it as an adult.

By giving your team the context for the work, you can harness their skills and judgments. If they know why they are doing something, they’ll see ways to improve during the process and they’ll be able to leverage their own decision-making abilities.

Notice that there is no mention of how a project gets done. That’s where the leverage comes in. If you have to walk the person through how they should proceed, you haven’t gotten leverage in the short of long term.

Give them the right guidelines and they’ll be able to bring their own abilities to bear. That’s how you leverage delegation to increase the productive capacity of your organization.

Diligently practicing the three “W’s” can go a long way to fixing your delegation problems. They take focus, but if you are doing the delegating, you’ll find that you’ll get better results from your team and free yourself up to do the critical work you need to focus on.

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About The Author

David J.P. Fisher (D. Fish) is a speaker, coach, and author. Building on 20 years of experience as an entrepreneur and sales professional, he combines nuanced strategy and real-world tactics to help professionals become more effective, efficient, and happy. As the president of RockStar Consulting, he works with individuals and organizations to develop more effective networking, sales, and marketing skills. He lives next door to a beautiful cemetery in Evanston, IL, that reminds him to appreciate every day (and to always be on the lookout for zombies).