The Truth About Delegation

May 06, 1996

The experts will say “You have to learn to delegate if you are going to be an effective manager.” On this point, conventional wisdom is actually right. Delegation is critical to your ability to get more done and make the best use of your time and capability. Not to mention that if you can dole off the stuff you don’t like to do, and it gets done right, your work day is a heck of a lot more enjoyable than it would be otherwise. Here are a few things I have learned about delegation for architects, engineers, planners, and environmental consultants: Delegation skills can be learned. Unlike certain other skills that may be required of design and environmental professionals as they move up the ladder (e.g., personal selling ability), learning to delegate doesn’t require a wholesale personality change. Delegation tools and techniques can be taught to almost anyone who is halfway intelligent and logical in his or her thought processes. It shouldn’t be hard to sell the benefits of delegation to an over-worked design or environmental professional who is already struggling to get 65 hours of work done in a 50-hour work week. Delegation may not come naturally to technical people. It shouldn’t be hard to convince professionals that they need to delegate, but it isn’t likely to be their first course of action when confronted with a task. The true technical professional cares about quality. He knows he can probably do most tasks better than his underlings, so instead of giving them to someone else, he does them himself. The Catch-22 is that the underlings will never be able to do it better than the superior as long as the superior doesn’t let them try to do it. In the long run, there is a good chance the underlings will eventually be better than the superior at that task— they just need a chance to develop their skills through practice. One good way to get a technical professional to delegate is to convince her that not doing so will hurt her career advancement. In our industry (A/E/P and environmental consulting) we have loads of technical people who can do their own work well, but who cannot get other people to do things efficiently or with the same quality as they would. The fact is that those who can keep 6, or 8, or 15 people busy by using good delegation practices are more valuable than those who cannot. I would not hesitate to say this in very clear language to any motivated professional. Point out examples of people who peaked in the firm because they could not delegate (there are usually plenty!) Use scare tactics, if you have to, to keep your second-tier or potential future managers from the same fate. There’s a huge difference between delegation and abdication. Delegation requires that you give some instructions to the person you are delegating to, and then provide them with the help they need to get the task accomplished. Delegation also requires that you clearly communicate expectations for the deliverables and identify the milestones along the way. It means you still need to spend some time on the matter, just not nearly as much. Abdication, on the other hand, is handing off a responsibility to someone else, without any communication about what is expected and when. You spend no time on the issue once you have abdicated your responsibility for accomplishing it. Delegation does not have to become a bureaucratic exercise. Some managers in A/E/P and environmental firms— those who read every new business book on The New York Times Best Seller List— can’t seem to understand this. They believe that everything must be in writing, and that every deadline for every task must be clearly established. They require a written report from the person they have delegated to on a weekly, even daily basis. The effective delegator, on the other hand, knows what has to be in writing, and what doesn’t. He is a good communicator, capable of getting someone else to understand what he wants. He does this through a variety of means— frequent verbal feedback, concise written feedback, rewards, and promotional opportunities— for the staff members who prove they can be delegated to. He does not over-rely on impersonal communication channels to get his expectations across. I’m absolutely sold on the benefits of delegation. I have people I can trust to do things right if I delegate to them. But it’s a skill you have to work on every day if you are going to be good at it. Originally published5/06/1996

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