How to Delegate for Results

Have you been burned delegating work–especially complex, thinking work–to others? You give someone a chunk of work to do and it comes back wrong, incomplete, or late. Sometimes it doesn’t even come back! Happens to everyone. Then we tend to avoid delegating again thinking, “if I want it done right, I have to do it myself.”

The real problem is in how we delegate. We are busy. We don’t want to be perceived as bossy, condescending, or unhelpful. So we default to a “drive by delegation” in the form of a quick conversation, an email, or <<shudder>> a text.

Here’s how to structure a delegation to an employee, peer, partner, boss, vendor, client, child, parent, spouse, etc. to improve the results and timeliness of the work you delegate to others. Feel free to adjust the tone and level of detail to match the level of trust you have with the other person and in their ability to deliver.

  1. Set the stage: tell ’em why. Remind or inform the other person about the context. Discuss (versus just tell) these questions: What’s going on? How does this bit of work fit in? Why is it important to you, them, and others? (Example: “You know how the Muntabhi project is due next week? We are hoping to avoid a last minute rush because none of us wants to stay up late and risk delivering something crappy. Well, part of the work left to complete is an executive summary for the final report. I’d like you to take a crack at it.”
  2. Clarify the “what.” Describe the results (not necessarily the steps) you would like to see.  Ask, “How will we know when we have a very good result here?” In the above example, this “how will we know” discussion might yield answers such as, “It restates the project objective, lists major accomplishments and findings, and previews our recommendations. It is as brief as possible while still being readable. It is understandable to anyone in Muntabhi even if they have never had experience with this project.”
  3. Clarify the when. If you have a deadline, state it. If other steps (e.g. editing, approvals, rehearsals, etc.) must happen after this step, say so. If you don’t have a hard deadline, then negotiate; ask, “By when can you complete this?” Example: “We need to have the report done by next Tuesday so that the team has time to rehearse their presentation set for the Thursday. If you can get a first draft done by tomorrow evening, you and I can edit it on Thursday and send it for approvals and integration into the report on Friday. Will you be able to get a first draft done by tomorrow at 5?”
  4. Problem solve before the problems occur. Discuss the potential obstacles. Ask, “What do we foresee that would get in the way of you completing this work by that date and time?” Then problem-solve around the obstacles. Obstacles in our example might include unrelated tasks that are also due soon, family commitments, and lack of needed knowledge or experience.
  5. Request notice if things go astray. Ask the other person to inform you as soon as they know that something is–if it is–threatening their ability to get the desired results by the agreed time. Example: “Of course the unexpected will start sneaking up on us as soon as we’re done our chat. Let’s agree to handle any unexpected obstacles as soon as possible rather than waiting and perhaps losing our opportunity to manage them. Should anything come up, please deal with it. If you can’t, please give me a ‘heads up’ as soon as you know.”

Looks like a lot of work, right? It is. Maybe it’s just a bit too much; maybe we don’t have to say all that? Perhaps. And it’s worth it. The time you invest here (slowing down, avoiding the temptation to fire off an email request or “lob it over the cubicle wall”) will be paid back in better results that everyone will enjoy.


To your continued success,


2 thoughts on “How to Delegate for Results

  1. Mike
    Great list. I would add 2 more steps:
    6. Establish the priority… Lots of times your staff do not understand the priority of your new ask versus their existing work, day-to-day activities, or request they’re getting from others. Ask what other high-priority items are on their list. Ask if there is anything they’re working on that will get in the way of completing the task. Be prepared to pick if there is an ‘either/or’ situation. Often your team will not see ‘other priorities’ as ‘obstacles’.
    7. Set checkpoints. If the task is either very urgent, or is expected to take time, ask for progress reports. Agree on the format – is it a quick ‘everything is ok, on track to meet the deadline’? Or is it a ‘here is the current draft, here are my next steps to complete, here’s the remaining effort’… At every checkpoint you want to consider walking through all the steps again … focusing on any new information on any why, what, when,

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