We’ve all been encouraged to delegate more. We’ve also all had the experience of delegating in the past only to have things turn into a total fricking disaster. Most management writing is on how to delegate better. I want to explain when, why, and how you should NOT delegate at all and how to better educate your team about why you’ve made those delegation decisions.
What inspired this article is a CEO friend of mine who recently completed a 360 degree performance review between herself and her leadership team. Can you take a guess at what most of the ‘things to improve’ feedback was? You got it. “Needs to do a better job of delegating.” “Tries to do too much herself.” “Gets too involved in the details sometimes.” I see the same scenario often with my clients.
Some of the feedback my friend received was valid. But some of it was not because, in this instance, she doesn’t fully trust in the abilities of the subordinates who were giving the feedback. She’s not wrong. How can you delegate a mission-critical project to someone whose capabilities you don’t fully trust?
There’s a mental model I like called the Conviction-Consequence matrix that helps to clarify to yourself and to others what projects you’re delegating and which ones you’re not and why. I picked up the outline for this model in the book Super Thinking, where the authors originally attribute the model to venture capitalist Keith Rabois. I’ve put my own spin on it:
Do It Yourself are those projects or situations that you have high conviction over and that also have very high consequences, positive and negative, to you and the organization.
I just love the use of the term conviction here. Think about the things in your life that you have high conviction over. Notice that you tend to be very capable in these areas already. You likely also have some significant experience dealing with similar situations to this one in the past. Ideally, you also have deep understanding of the first principles that guide the outcomes in this area.
However, there are also times as an entrepreneur when you can’t actually explain why you have such high conviction. You just know that you know, even if you’re not sure exactly why you know. True conviction can sometimes be a purely innate sense but it is still one that is hard to argue with.
Delegate to An Expert refers to those projects or situations where you have low conviction yourself but there are definitely high consequences for you and the organization. These are the projects or situations that you delegate to an expert, either to an internal staff member or to an external resource whom you trust.
The operative word here is trust. Building trust takes time. So if this is expert relationship is a new one to you, then you’ll need to spend more cycles getting to know him or her, learning from them, and verifying their approach and results. Once trust is built, you can delegate here with higher confidence and less of a time burden on you.
Delegate to Develop Others are those projects and situations where you have high conviction over what the end result should look like but it’s of low(er) consequence. This is a great area to use to train and develop your high-potential staff members. If they make a mistake, it’s manageable, and you’ll both learn and grow from it. But you’ll often be pleasantly surprised at their results too, which further builds trust between you and encourages you to give them high(er) consequence projects in the future.
Always Delegate are those low-conviction and low-consequence projects and situations. Get these off of your plate – and fast. Build complementary teams and support systems around you so these things get taken care of in ways that are timely and accurate, but require little time and energy expenditure from you.
Next Step: Map Your Projects
Using the Conviction-Consequence matrix as a guide, the next step is to reflect on how you’ve spent the last few weeks or months and place those projects or situations into the quadrant they should be in, then compare them to how you’ve actually been managing or delegating them. Look for discrepancies.
Are you spending your finite time and energy on directly leading projects that you don’t have high conviction over? If so, I would wager a large sum of money that you’re stressed out and agitated because you feel like the blind leading the blind.
I also imagine that you have had a hard time finding a suitable expert to take on this project, either because you lack the resources or you don’t fully trust the person who should be in charge, and so you’ve stepped in to fill the void.
My advice? Shift resources to finding and placing the expert, again either internal or external, that you can trust. There’s a reason that Jim Collins coined the term “first who, then what.” If you don’t have the right people on the bus to drive a project, you probably shouldn’t be doing that project right now.
Are you missing opportunities to delegate low(er)-consequence projects in order to develop your staff? Developing others takes time but if you don’t let go of some things, you’ll end up drowning in all things. What projects do you have high conviction over that you can and should delegate and to whom?
For instance, my friend who inspired this article is in the middle of raising Series B. Obviously a high-conviction and high-consequence project. However, she’s been spending an inordinate amount of time getting the investor deck right. She realized that her business analyst is actually the perfect person to delegate this project to. Of course she’ll validate the work and can make any adjustments but more importantly, she can use it as a development opportunity.
Have you been ignoring some high-conviction and high-consequence projects? If so, this is a double negative whammy. These are the projects that you’re best at doing and should be doing but you’re not, likely because you’re too busy and consumed managing people and a litany of other projects. Fix this and fast. Not only are you not doing what’s best for the organization, you’re likely irritable and stressed out too because you’re not playing to your personal strengths and interests. It’s a downward spiral.
Do you have any low-consequence and low-conviction projects sucking your time? I think all of us are clear that we’re supposed to be outsourcing/delegating these kinds of projects and activities but it’s still easy to get sucked in here. Be vigilant in not allowing low-value and high-cost projects into your life. Don’t trade activity for effectiveness. In order to drive meaningful things forward, you have to have the capacity and focus to actually do it. Everything is a trade off.
Mental Models Are Best When Shared
Mental models are best when shared, so one thing I recommend is to actually teach your team this matrix and lay out where the current projects and situations should be in each quadrant. You’ll notice that some projects seem to get stuck in the middle between quadrants. That’s a great leading indicator that something needs to change.
Do you trust the leader to whom you should delegate? If not, make it known how they can build trust with you and vice versa. What are the expectations, key results, and key performance indicators to tell you this project is on track? Align there or make a change in the leader. Don’t get stuck in the middle.
Do you lack the resources to delegate to? If so, do less. Let things go until you have the resource you feel you can quickly get to high trust with. If you’re under pressure from elsewhere in the organization to legitimately do too much, then shift your focus to making this known and coming up with a solution.
Finally, use this matrix to ask your team for perspective on where they think you can do a better job of letting go and delegating. Find out where they are inspired and talented enough to step in and fill the gaps. And what are the expectations you have on them if they do take a particular project on? Well begun is half done.
Every leader has to go through a progression from leading by doing to leading through others. Use the Conviction-Consequence matrix to identify gaps in where you should be delegating or not and to create shared consciousness on your team about where the problems and opportunities lie. If the team can understand the rationale for why delegation decisions are made, this will reduce internal noise and friction around who is doing what.
I hope this concept was helpful in delivering some new perspectives for you and your team on when to delegate, when not to, and why.