Never delegate: how and why

TLDR: Instead of delegating, make sure it was never your job in the first place.

Hands up if you've ever been told to delegate more. I suspect it's a lot of you, and many of those more than once. It’s certainly been on my career objectives more than once, both as a personal objective and something that managers have asked of me.

But here's the thing: good leaders should never need to delegate. Instead, they try to make sure it was never their job in the first place.

At the heart of the message of "you need to delegate" is the implication that you're doing too much. In a healthy work environment people will notice if you’re perpetually run off your feet or working long hours - it’s not a long-term healthy way to work. And more widely, the impact of being always busy is that you quickly become a bottleneck at work - the queue time associated with whatever you need to contribute to will slow down your team’s entire cycle time. So on both a personal and professional level, "delegate more" is 90% of the time a delicate way of saying "you're getting this wrong".

It’s a common struggle for anyone going through any kind of transition at work, especially if that transition is from maker to multiplier (or from individual contributor to manager, to use a more common terminology). But it equally applies to people who have had to change their role or responsibilities due to an agile transformation, rapid scaling, or company reorganisation.

But the reason I hate delegation so much is that it has such a tricky relationship with authority and ownership. When you delegate a task, you give away the doing of the task but retain the ownership for ensuring that the task is done - “you delegate responsibility, not accountability”. The delegatee never gets to take full control of the overarching outcome, and it’s fertile ground for micro-management.

So, don’t delegate. Just stop doing the things you shouldn’t be doing any more. Relinquish them to someone else, abandon them, give them away, bequeath those tasks to someone else… Make them so that they are not your job any more.

(If you’re passing the task on to a junior direct report, you might feel uneasy about giving them the responsibility and ownership of something that might be beyond them - especially if the risk of failure could bring wide or severe impact. Remember that as a manager your primary focus should be to ensure that they succeed, rather than ensuring that the task is successful. It’s a small distinction but one I found very helpful).

If you’re not sure what to drop, then just arrange your tasks on a 2x2 grid according to urgency and importance. Although this might seem like an excessively simplistic tool, I’ve found that the process of going through this on a personal level periodically is a very effective self-coaching technique. For best effect, don’t limit this to professional tasks alone - put everything on there:

2x2 importance and urgency

*Note that the “delegate it” term has been kept here to keep the nice alliteration of D-phrases, actually what I mean is “this is probably something that you could remove from your job”.

Note: Important-not-urgent tasks are labelled “decide to do it” because they’re the kinds of things that always get pushed out by urgent things - sometimes even unimportant urgent things. You have to make an active decision to prioritise them. Things like spending more time with your kids, go to the gym, take a proper lunch break once in a while… a lot of self-care things fall in this quadrant.

If you’re anything like me, seeing your own personal and professional tasks and priorities laid out like this will make you realise just how unrealistic your own expectations of yourself are. And hopefully that will give you the perspective needed to see that you’re doing a lot of things that probably shouldn't actually be your job.

Troubleshooting

Ok nice in theory - we all know it's not that easy in practice. Here are a few common tripping up points, please let me know in the comments if you experience any others!

But I’m not actually busy

The common cause of being told to delegate more is over-stretched people who need to do less. The other possible cause of being told to delegate more is that you’re doing something which is negatively impacting your colleagues or team. Being told to delegate may be a gentle way of saying “back off and let this other person do the job we hired them to do”. Are you stepping on toes? Another possibility for newer leaders is that you haven’t quite got comfortable with the less tangible parts of your new role, and you’re still putting too much effort into the nice comfortable concrete “maker” tasks that you are used to doing.

But I don’t have anyone to delegate to

A common blocker of delegation is “I don’t have anyone to delegate to”. If you don’t have anyone to hand off to because everyone is run off their feet, then your org has a cultural problem rather than you having a delegation problem. Start by saying no to things and push things back up the chain of command.

If, on the other hand, you are unhappy about handing things off to more junior team members because you’re worried it’s beyond their capability or experience level, then it’s worth getting some outside perspective. Maybe your concerns are valid, or maybe your perspective is out. When you relinquish a responsibility, you have to reconcile yourself with the fact that someone is going to do it differently to you, and that might (at least from your perspective) mean less well. Speaking from experience, that’s a tough learning curve if you have perfectionist tendencies, but one that’s well worth going through.

But I like doing <x>

There’s a myth that being good at delegating means giving someone else the good tasks and keeping the crap ones for yourself. Or the other way around. Whichever way you look at it, it lacks imagination. Yes there are a few universally rubbish tasks - share them out, take turns, watch out for the toxic team member who never takes their fair share of these. But even if it’s not something that someone immediately jumps at, the chance to do something else could be a good experiment, a change of pace, an opportunity to learn. Above all, don’t make assumptions. The task that you find dull and repetitive, someone else might find relaxing (true story - I love the chance to clear up a neglected Jira backlog once in a while… relatively predictable low-stress work that adds value while I get to think through bigger issues). On the other hand, that knotty legacy problem you don’t want to burden anyone else with? There’s an up-and-coming mid-level dev who can’t wait to tackle something meaty and prove themselves.

In summary

Don’t delegate. Accept that it’s not your job (any more). Let someone else do it. Maybe help them be successful, if that is your job.