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"Delegation is not a binary thing. There are shades of grey between a dictatorship and anarchy." Jurgen Appelo

Delegating is not black or white. It's not all or nothing. Its nature can - and should - change depending on the task, and depending on the person who is handling it. If you understand and hone your skill in the levels of delegation, you can empower your team to grow, develop, and achieve sustainable results. And you... well, you can take a day off now and then.

Lay the Groundwork

You've heard of SMART goals; you can use that acronym for delegation. Or go one better and be SMARTER.

  • Specific. Clearly define the task. What exactly do you need done? Within what parameters should the direct-report work? What are the boundaries of his or her decision-making authority?
  • Measurable. Determine how you will measure task completion. What does success look like, and how will you evaluate your direct report?
  • Agreed. Secure agreement with the individual. Have them confirm that they understand the task, due date, priority, available resources, and other essentials. Clarify where necessary, and ensure they know they can come to you with questions.
  • Realistic. Set yourself, and your direct report, up for success. Ensure tasks are realistic. Does the person have the necessary skills and experience? If not, and you want them to develop them, do they have the support they need? If so, do they have the time and resources required for successful task completion?
  • Time Bound. Open-ended tasks have a way of becoming I'll-get-to-it-tomorrow tasks. Set a firm deadline, with the input of the direct report. Depending on the nature of the task, as well as the experience of the individual, you may want to set milestones or check-ins.
  • Ethical. Some people use "exciting" in their SMARTER goals. Chances are, though, you're going to have more than enough work that is mundane or run-of-the-mill. Always be sure that the task is ethical and poses no moral dilemmas for the person completing it.
  • Recorded. Because so much can be "lost in translation" in verbal conversations, commit the delegation to writing. Jot down important details (timeline, priorities, resources, etc.) and share with the direct report. It becomes a "contract" and helps clarify expectations.

Moving Up the Delegation Ladder

SMARTER provides a foundation on which to build effective delegation. How much scaffolding you'll have to provide, again, depends on the task and the individual who will handle it. Individuals progress through the levels of delegation as they gain experience and skills in particular tasks.

  1. Do What I Say. For new and inexperienced staff, you may not be comfortable delegating responsibility at all. That is not to say they'll stay at the bottom rung of the delegation ladder forever; they just need to establish a solid track record of completing tasks as directed.

  2. Look Into It. If employees need more guidance before taking on tasks, you can support them by entrusting them to collect information and assess a problem or opportunity. For example, your organization is facing a challenge with your "social license to operate" in your community. You could have the direct report gather information and create a verbal or written report. The decision to act, or not, is still yours.

  3. What Do You Recommend? A step up, the direct report analyzes an issue, and he or she then makes a recommendation as to next steps. Using our previous example, should we engage the town? Hold an event? Reach out to community influencers? Again, the decision is yours, but the individual has a voice in the discussion.

  4. What Should We Do? At this level, the direct report can expand on the recommendation into a full-fledged action plan. How could they implement it? What specific steps would they take?
    Review the plan and approve, or not. Let the individual know your decision and how you arrived at it. If you're going ahead, how can you help them implement the plan?
    If not, do you want them to submit another proposal? Also ask yourself whether they were ready for level 4. Do you have to dial back your expectations until they gain more experience?

  5. It's Your Call. When a direct report reaches this level of delegation, you can comfortably hand over decision-making responsibility for certain tasks. They still go through the steps of analyzing a situation and develop a plan. The decision is theirs to make with your support, if needed. Implement regular check-ins, especially if someone has just moved to this level, so you can review or course-correct.

  6. You've Got This. Step back. Your direct report is able to fully and independently handle responsibility for a task. They've established a sound track record, their decision-making is solid, and their results are consistent. They don't need you unless there are oddities or unique challenges.

Keep In Mind...

People climb the levels of delegation at different speeds and according to the demands of different tasks. They may, for example, be at level 6 for Task A but level 2 for Task B. Regardless of where they are, encourage continued progress with SMARTER delegation techniques and the appropriate level of oversight and support along the way.


Larry Hart

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