The Ladder of Delegation

When I was first learning to delegate, my biggest challenge was letting go of control. After months of struggling, I created a model that helped me to ease my fear of losing control.

The model is based on three key ideas. First, all tasks have common parts. The most obvious part is doing the work to create the intended results. Other parts may be less obvious to new managers, but are inherent in any task. Here are the parts that I see in every task:

  • Define the desired result.
  • Define how we will know we're done.
  • Define how we will achieve the result.
  • Define how we will assess progress.
  • Do the work.
  • Assess progress.
  • Determine whether we're done.

The second key idea is that I don't have to delegate a whole task. If tasks have parts I can delegate some parts and retain other parts for myself. I can delegate the parts that I feel safe delegating, and retain the parts that trigger my fear of losing control.

And this leads to the third idea. I can improve my delegating bit-by-bit by letting go of just one more part of each task, then one more part, then one more. If I can choose wisely which parts to let go of next, I can steadily, safely, and effectively improve my delegating.

So which parts should I let go of next? To answer that question, I created a model that I call The Ladder of Delegation. I draw a ladder, and on the rungs I list the parts of a task, arranged according to my willingness to delegate them—the parts that I'm most willing to delegate at the bottom, and the parts that I'm most reluctant to delegate at the top. My Ladder of Delegation looks like this:

Define the desired result.
Define how we will know we're done.
Determine whether we're done.
Define how we will achieve the result.
Define how we will assess progress.
Assess progress.
Do the work.

Here's how I use The Ladder. When I'm preparing to delegate a task to someone, I notice how far up The Ladder I'm willing to climb. Which rungs am I willing to delegate? At which rung do I hesitate? Then I ask myself, "What would have to change in order for me to be willing to take one more step up The Ladder?" Usually my hesitation is a matter of trust. In order to take another step, in order to delegate the next part of the task, I would need to trust the person to do that part well. There are various ways to build that trust. Once I've clarified my hesitation by noticing which step I'm reluctant to take, I can usually see a path toward building trust.

I may be at different rungs of The Ladder with different people. With Dana, I may feel confident delegating up through the fifth rung, determining whether we've achieved the result. With Pat, I may be willing to delegate only doing the work itself. And even with a single person, I may be at different rungs for different kinds of tasks.

Build your own Ladder of Delegation and try it. Your ladder may not look like mine. Maybe you would slice tasks into parts differently than I have. Or maybe you would order them differently than I have. Adjust as you see fit. Then use your Ladder to improve your delegating. The key is to notice where on your Ladder you hesitate, to identify what would have to change so that you can take that next step, and to work toward that change.

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