Illustration of drowning hand making peace sign
№ 17

The disaster of delegation

Reading time 7 minutes read
What's the fastest way of losing faith in human intelligence? Delegating a task and seeing what comes back. Or the other way around: being handed a task that insults your brain from the start. Everybody has lived through this horrible experience many times, from either or both perspectives: having delegated a task to someone else and astonishingly looking at the result that bears no similarity to the stuff you were making up in your head and were anticipating, wondering where communication went wrong and grudgingly replacing your date night with an all nighter at the office to save the day. Or being handed down some briefing that makes no sense, once you started working on it, missing critical information to do a great job, having to work in this horrible limbo of mind reading, trying to guess what the other person might expect or might have done. In short: to avoid frustration, desillusionment and a scarred relationship to top it all off, we need to rethink delegation and finding better ways of deciding how to share work.

How we delegate just doesn't work. At first, this article was called: the art of delegation. But in the process of writing it, I realized that this word and all the core beliefs attached to it, are actually part of the problem. Delegation - as widely used- is understood as one person telling others what to do, how to do it and when to finish it. Usually done in one of three ways. And once we have a closer look at it, it becomes obvious, why it can't work.

Delegating by seniority:

Seen most often in corporate settings: Putting people in categories. Everybody assumes certain capabilities to be attached to a specific level. ("A mid-level should be able/allowed to do X and Y"). Two things on this. First: since when did putting people into boxes work? We're all individuals and just assuming that people will have a specified skillset once they hit a promotion is a sure way towards disappointment. You can't generalize competences, no matter how many skill matrixes we try to fill out. Even if they have 300 lines, it won't get any better.
The second aspect: In some contexts, delegating by seniority is rather based on a hidden assumption that is based on bad personal experience: Before you're able to handle the important tasks around here, you need to suffer in the pit of novices and fight your way through meaningless tasks, just as I did in my early years and all the sad, frustrated professional people before me. Isn't it beautiful, what a positive outlook on the world we tend to have and how capable we all are in letting go of our personal grudges?
The result of this: The more junior people tend to be used only to do the groundwork or simple support tasks (the classic: desk research, checking footnotes, etc.), laying out the fundament, before the more senior people come in, when it gets tricky or "supervise", to save the day. This works if you want to leave 50% of the brains available unused and 50% of the people quiet quitting. As a result, you will grow two different characters by this: either people with too little confidence and thus, very passive contribution. Or even worse - bored, over-confident people with lack of true experience who wanna revenge their bad upbringing by replicating it.
Little hint: if you need a submissive assistant, you can just ask ChatGPT or any other AI to do those things. What a beautiful future we're living in.

Delegating by discipline:

The researcher does the research. The designer does the design. The strategist does the strategy. This is bullshit because there is no such thing as a design phase or a strategy phase. A better and more nuanced view is: Disciplines are just different perspectives on the same questions. So letting their tasks run separate is kind of like using letters from different alphabets to compose one word and wondering why no-one is able to read it. Instead, working together with different disciplines needs to be about integrating these perspectives and making sure they are in resonance to each other. This is impossible to achieve by cutting tasks into separate pieces, instead it's about designing collaborative phases, co-working, exchanging and handing out holistic responsibilities instead of pieces.

Delegating by time available:

Those who have time do the work. No comment. That this is bullocks should be obvious.

Surprise, surprise, none of these ways work. Instead they make people lose their ability to think for themselves and bury the chance to come up with surprising, extraordinary results that bring out the specific strengths of the individuals working on it. So, let's delete delegation out of our vocabulary and start thinking, about how to share responsibility and work in the best way.

(And no: I also don't want to play delegation poker every time, because I prefer to talk to grown-ups in real conversations instead of handing out badly illustrated cards. It might work for some people and might be pedagogically valuable and all, but those agile tools that are supposed to gamify my working life and make it more "fun" just make me very aggressive, tbh. I just don't like to be infantilized, IMHO we can just talk normally to each other like the adults we are)

So, after scrapping both the word as well as the cards, a better question to follow is: How do we divide work in a way that makes everyone feel challenged but confident about their contribution, that leverages the individual strengths of all team members while delivering a coherent outcome, that strikes the balance between allowing people to learn and grow without compromising quality?

For this to happen we need to do three things:

  1. Adopting a different mindset
  2. Finding out who your team members actually are - beyond their titles
  3. Balancing the right dose of difficulty


01. A different mindset

It's time to let go of some beliefs we uphold, mostly unconsciously, that hinder us to share responsibility in the first place. While some of them are straight ego, there are actually others who have the best of intentions in mind, but the truth as always is: Good intentions rarely bring about anything good. Here come the classics of beliefs:

  • I work with mini-me's of myself who work like me, think like me and decide like me and whose every move can, thus, be neatly predicted and planned.
  • There is only one way on how to solve problems and it's the one I know.
  • I'm the only person around who is able to deliver on this task in an adequate way (often in combination with complaining about having too much to do at the same time)
  • I need to protect less experienced people from making mistakes and failures.
  • I'm scared that there might be a person other than myself who is better, faster or more adept at solving a specific issue of the problem. (Little hint: if you have one of those in your team, you're a lucky bastard and you should thank yourself or the person who recruited them.)

I know for a fact that you're familiar to at least one - probably many of these. And as hard as letting go of belief systems might be, we need to get rid of these now, or just continue doing everything by ourselves for forever (and ever ever).
The truth: Working with other people or sharing tasks with them means sharing accountability with them and that means, learning to trust that they will contribute and deliver on their own terms. Sharing responsibility is in essence a lesson of trust. You need to start believing:

  • people will do amazing things on their own terms
  • people feel responsible and will deliver on time
  • people will give their best, if you make space for it
  • people can contribute just by their own different perspective
  • people are more than their role
    (Yes, this means, overall assuming that people are good. This may come as a shocker for most, because most of our entire society is built on the opposite assumption).

So, after adopting some new mindset for sharing work, it's time to channel our inner curiosity for other people.


02. Finding out who your team members actually are.

To allocate the right task to the right person, it's essential that you know what they're actually capable and keen on doing. Sounds like a no-brainer, but trust me it's not happening. In 14 years of business, with the exception of one person, not one single person has ever asked me what I actually enjoy doing or what my true interests are. Sad quote. Be the person to crash that pattern. And be specific. Do you know about the night studies your colleague did to understand sustainability? Do you know about their weekly excursions to museums and their passion for flashy imagery? Have you seen their amazing hobby photography that they show no-one because they are still practicing? Do you know about them having worked as a proof reader in college, training their eagles eye for years? You should!

Titles are in most part some attempt on pushing for conformity and comparability in a world of complex individuals.

Instead I see people still relying on job titles. This might have been a good indicator in the past (I doubt it), but surely is not one for these days. Titles are in most part some attempt on pushing for conformity and comparability in a world of complex individuals. It's at the most some helpful direction, but it's never a full map of the depth of what people are able to do. So it's time to find that out for yourself across three dimensions:


What is that person's skillset and expertise? What's their secret power and how can you relate it to the task at hand? What's their experience in terms of projects, jobs etc. and how can the team benefit from this? What's their personality, their way of working and how can you make sure that they can contribute in the best way?


What do they love to do? What leads to them being "in flow"? What tasks makes them forget their time? What's their secret whim that's totally out of role, but makes them deeply happy and that can add to the value of the outcome?
(Mine is perfecting headlines and researching imagery for presentation. I know this is not in my role description and I "shouldn't" waste my time on it, but it makes me deeply happy to dive deep into the rabbit hole of art and wordings)

Growth pattern:

What does that person need for learning and growth? Are they happy to jump into the deep end of things and try to stay afloat? Do they require regular check-ins and pep talks in order not to get lost in self-doubt? Do they tend to get cocky and need some drops of realism every three days? How does this project relate to their development plans and challenges? What's in it for them to boost their career?


03. Finding the right dose of difficulty

So, now that your team actually has a clue who they are working on and what tasks could be the right thing to share, we can zoom in on one of the harder question: How to strike the balance between challenging other people while not letting them wear shoes that are 3 sizes too big? How to let them feel ownership for their for their tasks without shifting the whole responsibility on their shoulders? A concept that has helped me to answer that question more effectively is: Dividing work by complexity. From my point of view, it's not only expertise that grows with a longer working experience, but ideally the ability of dealing with uncertainty or complexity within that field. If you have done things multiple times in your life, you move from consciously knowing to unconsciously knowing and are adept of better dealing with unforeseen contexts, very difficult stakeholder groups, moments of pressure and short deadlines. So, finding pieces of projects to hand to somebody else, for me, is based on the answer of how much complexity is that person being able to handle comfortably?
Example: Building a follow-up product strategy for an existing product (even if it's a very innovative one), is a less complex undertaking than preparing the investment decision of venturing into an unknown market. Less variables are known, more assumptions have to be made and communicated in a way that convinces important stakeholders.
So, the art of sharing responsibility lies in your ability to recognize different chunks or streams of complexity within a project. Chunks that can be worked on quite separate, but that are still holistic enough so that people can feel a sense of ownership instead of just assisting somebody else's work. It's not an easy venture: it's a messy process, it requires you to critically examine what the desired outcome needs to be, where dependencies lie etc. But for me it has made a big difference in how I hand tasks to others.

How much complexity is that person being able to handle comfortably?

Two very regular examples straight from work life (sorry for the boring choice, but I wanted those examples to be as widely usable as possible)
Example 1: Instead of delegating the desk research for some of my presentations, I hand over chapters to people (depending on the complexity of the chapter), where everyone owns the entire strategy process from research, conceptual work to writing and designing the slides (including presenting!) I take over the chapters that seem to be most challenging to get across to our clients, because I would be the person who defends them in the end and my experiences pays off here. To make sure it's not a slide zoo, but a coherent presentation, we align the headlines together at the beginning so that the key messages are clear for everyone and obviously I give feedback and sparring. But other than that: go ahead and do your thing!

Example 2: Workshop
I divide different parts of the workshop preparation and conduction to different people based on the complexity, but also based on the communication style of the persons working with me. The educational part where we show off our competence - done by the passionate and patient expert who just loves to answer questions. The brainstorming session - maybe the driven junior consultant, who is so excited about generating ideas for the real world, that their excitement sets the room on creative fire. The political discussion - I leave this to the account lead who knows all those people inside out and is a diplomatic force. Sometimes this leads to the fact, that me as a very senior person takes over a part that seems quite unimportant from the outside. And that is totally ok. Because my job is to make sure that each part is done by the person who I trust to create the most excellent outcome in that regard. What I usually end up doing are transformational aspects because this is where my competence, skills and my love intersect. I have this great pleasure in inspiring people to try something they didn't dare to before and I like to play a part in getting them to move in different directions and enjoying it. But there are many things that other people are much better equipped to do, like proofreading, following up on communication, detailed processes. And it's smart to hand them over. Because that's the beauty of sharing work.