Fueling Flames— My 3 Rules For World-Changing Delegation

Simple yet counter-intuitive strategies for delegating effectively

Rules that I follow to help me be an effective delegator

For myself, learning just one specific skill transformed my notion of changing the world from idealistic, poster jargon to a goal I believe I can achieve. That skill is delegation.

In this article, I’ll cover the 3 rules I follow for delegation and walk through some examples of improving upon delegation strategies.

Through my winding path of failures trying to be a leader, I’ve evolved and tested 3 principles for being an effective delegator, all of which are quite different from what I was taught or had seen from others. These guidelines have lead to levels of success that far exceeded my expectations and eventually a complete resetting of the scope of my personal goals.

As a result of being an effective delegator, important problems I care about are being solved by others through more effective means than I would have attempted; all with little or no involvement from me.

The short version of these 3 rules are:

1) Delegate the Good Stuff

Delegate problems that are exciting to solve; never delegate something because I don’t want to do it.

2) Delegate Problems Not Tasks

People are motivated to solve meaningful problems; being asked to follow a specific set of tasks will become demotivating

3) Success Means Others Doing Things Differently

Delegation is most successful if someone is approaching it differently than how I would have; others need space to try something different.

…learning just one specific skill transformed my notion of changing the world from idealistic, poster jargon to a goal I believe I can achieve. That skill is delegation.

Motivation is the most critical component for effective delegation

Motivation: The Fuel For Solving Any Problem

Motivation is the secret sauce that makes magic happen!

Motivated people are resolute when looking for solutions. They adapt to adversity and continue to move forward when facing problems. Folks who are lacking motivation will show low effort and often stop as soon as things become difficult. The difference comes down to each individual’s definition of success.

When someone we’re relying on is unmotivated, we can become frustrated as we attempt to invent ways to motivate them to accomplish the goal we have in mind. This situation is doomed to fail because people and their motivations don’t work this way. We should instead be adjusting the goal to align with what they want to accomplish.

We cannot force people to be motivated about something arbitrary, we can only attempt to understand their motivations and help them find ways to leverage what motivates them to accomplish a common goal. Sometimes this can be as simple as rewording the goal; oftentimes it means changing the goal altogether.

The core belief of World-Changing Delegation is understanding what motivates people and providing them with enough information to find their own solutions. This means we have to relinquish control, which is especially difficult with the things we care most about.

Delegate the valuable problems instead of the not-so-valuable ones

1) Delegate the Good Stuff

Motivated people are the most likely to push themselves toward finding a kick-ass solution. So, when it comes time to delegate, instead of trying to motivate people to take the problems we don’t want to solve, give them problems they’re motivated to solve. Many times, this means delegating the problems that are the most impactful or may come with the most recognition.

It can certainly feel counter-intuitive to ask others to take the most important things from my plate, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how people step up and exceed expectations when I’ve genuinely depended on them to do so. It’s delegating the tasks I don’t find interesting or that I simply don’t want to do myself that has been the most problematic.

Trust Is a Motivator

Delegating important problems is impactful in part because it introduces another powerful motivator: trust. The fact that I’m trusting someone else with problems and responsibilities that are important to me shows respect and faith in their abilities. This introduces motivation to live up to expectations, and the more motivation, the higher the chance for success in one form or another.

NOTE: Too much pressure can have a negative impact on creative problem solving depending on an individual’s confidence. Ensure the level of urgency doesn’t exceed too far beyond their level of experience.

When it comes time to delegate some of my responsibilities, I follow these guidelines:

  1. First, consider the problems I find significantly impactful and interesting, try delegating those before anything else.
  2. Assess all the things I know people are passionate about. If new problems arise that I know align with someone’s goals, see if that individual would be motivated to take on the problem. NOTE: This requires making the effort to understand people’s passions on a regular basis, before delegating.
  3. If #1 and #2 don’t apply, either adjust the problem to become something I’d personally be excited to work on or just take on the problem myself and find something else to delegate to others.

Additional Impacts

  • Giving people a chance to solve important problems means challenging them and giving them chances to grow. This has lead to retaining more talented teammates, growing leaders of the future, and making my entire team more autonomous and effective.
  • Aligning people with important problems reinforces trust and respect; this is invaluable. Each time I delegate a problem to someone, if they are able to have a noticeable impact and gain recognition for it, they’re more likely to be pumped to help me again the in future.
  • When people know something is important to me, they’ve stepped up and have been more likely to ask for help or let me know if there are difficulties along the way. Risk can be scary and we as humans tend to jump to the worst-case-scenario when considering what others will do regarding “important” work.

…instead of trying to motivate people to take the problems we don’t want to solve, give them problems they’re motivated to solve.

Give people problems to solve instead of tasks to complete

2) Delegate Problems Not Tasks

Instead of giving people something to do, present them with a problem to solve. Any task we want to delegate is ultimately a solution to some specific problem that we’ve already thought about. Giving folks space to try their own approach will create an impactful learning experience as well as allowing them to find an even better way to solve the problem!

Example 1

Task: For tomorrow, will you write up a summary of all the times you’ve seen Issue X happen in the past 2 years?

Actual Problem: How should we approach writing up a summary and doing a short presentation for Friday about Issue X and how we can prevent it from happening in the future?

Additional Context To Share: I’m supposed to do a write-up and short presentation about Issue X which I fixed last week. Your tool was a huge help, and this is a chance for more people to know about it! We can also make a case to do what you’ve been suggesting and finally fix the problem for good. Any interest in helping with the summary and/or the presentation?

Example 2

Task: I need you to go to the database and change the year from 2019 to 2020

Actual Problem: Our website reads “Copyright 2019” in the footer and we want it to change it to “Copyright 2020”, ideally by January 1st.

Additional Context To Share: Right now, the year comes from the database and we end up just changing it manually every year.

Example 3

Task: Find a way to get James and one other person to switch teams by the end of the week

Actual Problem: Our priorities have changed and Project A is now our top priority to have completed by the end of the month. How can we ensure we’re getting it done as fast as possible?

Additional Context To Share: My first thought was to move James and another person to the project, I’m open to other ideas. Have a plan by tomorrow’s meeting so we can start executing on it afterward.

Key Impacts

  • This creates space for people to own the problem, brainstorm various ways to approach it, and learn quickly by trying things themselves; these are all key motivators.
  • Others will better appreciate and understand the reasons why we approach things the way we do rather than just copying what we do. This is the difference between letting people come to a conclusion themselves versus only telling them the conclusion.
  • People will have a chance to think about the problem more, challenge assumptions, and build on top of our suggestions and experiences instead of just copying them.
  • This gives people a chance to solve the problem in an even better way, or even eliminate the problem in the future!
When people feel motivated and empowered, they find ways to improve upon other solutions

3) Success Means Others Doing Things Differently

In order to determine if I’ve delegated a problem in a successful, sustainable manner, the first thing I look for is whether they solved the problem differently than I suggested or expected.

If I offered some suggestions beforehand, did they do exactly what I said or did they make some adjustments? Did they do something completely different? If they approached it differently, there’s a good chance they’re motivated and feel accountable for solving the problem.

If someone did exactly what I suggested, they may have solved the problem, however, it’s unlikely they explored other avenues. If I ask them to solve a similar problem in the future, I may still have to provide a good amount of direction. Needing to give direction will minimize the upside of delegating — I still have to put time and effort into guiding them myself — and it won’t allow for the possibility of an improved solution.

After attempting to delegate a problem, I categorize the result in 3 ways: Failed Delegation, Fragile Delegation, or Self-Sustained Delegation.

Failed Delegation

Attempts to delegate have failed if the person has not completed the task and has not attempted to work around difficulties within the problem. This is easy to recognize simply because the person is lacking motivation and the problem has not been solved.

This generally means they weren’t on the same page as me around the definition of success, or I was wrong about what kind of things motivate them. Thus, I need to better understand their passions to delegate more effectively in the future.

Fragile Delegation

I consider delegation as fragile if the problem was solved but the person didn’t show much ownership over the problem and thus didn’t get much out of the experience. I use the term “fragile” because anything unexpected or difficult will likely cause the process to fall apart.

Some signs of a fragile delegation include:

  • The problem was solved in a minimally acceptable way
  • Only a subset of what was needed was completed
  • The exact steps that were laid out were followed, nothing more, nothing less
  • A bunch of unnecessary work was done and obvious inefficiencies weren’t resolved

Solving the problem is not the sole defining factor on whether delegation was successful or not; the way the individual solved the problem is also important.

Self-Sustained Delegation

My goal with delegation is to align people with problems they’re highly motivated to solve. A clear sign of self-sustained delegation is if they resolved something differently than how I described or what I expected.

Some signs of self-sustained delegation:

  • The problem was solved differently than suggested
  • An effort was made to permanently eliminate the problem or make it easier to solve in the future
  • Others were involved to collaborate on solving the problem
  • The problem itself was solved, as were some additional, related problems

If someone is attempting to solve a problem through different means than others have tried in the past, this means they are experimenting with other ideas. People only veer away from existing solutions if they have some confidence in their understanding of the constraints and are motivated to solve the problem.

Ultimately, this means I did not have to give guidance or observe what they were doing. I could truly delegate a problem, focus on something else, and be confident the problem would be solved in an awesome way while also allowing someone to grow.

Even if someone is trying a solution that we’ve seen fail before or we don’t believe will succeed, we should still give them a chance to figure it out! If it does fail, they may ask us for help, which is a great chance to share our experience and knowledge in a way that they’ll use and retain.

There’s always the chance that their alternative method will work even better, which would be a win for everyone!

Needing to give direction will minimize the upside of delegating — I still have to put time and effort into guiding them myself — and it won’t allow for the possibility of an improved solution.

Delegation Example 1 — A Paper Towel Emergency: Fragile vs Self-Sustained Delegation

Make sure there are napkins at lunch!

Let’s look at an example of creating self-sustained delegation vs fragile delegation: ordering lunch for a conference.

We’re in charge of organizing a conference and Christina has offered to take on ordering food for lunch. So, we want to effectively delegate the food order to her.

Fragile Delegation:

  • We tell Christina to order 20 pizzas total: 5 each of cheese, pepperoni, veggie, and meat-lovers; also order enough salad for 10 people.
  • We let her know to order the pizza about 90 minutes before noon, and make sure there are plates and drinks available as well.
  • We tell her to make sure she grabs a cart or something to help transport the pizzas to the conference room.

The result — Cold Pizza and a Paper Towel Economy

  • All the pizza was cold; it arrived 30 minutes before lunch.
  • A veggie pizza was lost when Christina tried to transport it all by herself, stacking 10 pizzas on the cart at once. Yikes.
  • Salad and veggie pizzas ran out immediately; turnout was higher than expected, vegetarian turnout was even higher!
  • There we no napkins! People had to grab paper towels from the bathrooms; “paper towels as currency” became a running joke for the rest of the conference.
  • Attendance at the 1:00 PM talk was low — many folks went somewhere else to get food and were late getting back.
  • A miserable Christina feels like she let everyone down. She won’t be looking to help out with conferences anytime soon.

Self-Sustained Delegation:

  • We tell Christina we’re expecting around 50 people and they will have a wide variety of dietary requests and restrictions.
  • You let her know it’s better for the food to be early than late, and there will be nothing provided unless we get it ourselves. So, any serving materials, utensils, or drinks will have to come from us.
  • We are aiming for a budget of $300. We can go over if we need to, especially if the turnout is good.
  • We let her know we usually order pizza because it’s safe, easy to order a variety of, relatively mess-free, and cheap.

The result — Lunch Was Excellent!

  • Vegetarians find pre-packaged salads with their names on them at lunch! Those who didn’t respond to Christina’s pre-conference email still have 2 options of pre-packaged salads.
  • Non-vegetarians chow down on chicken nuggets and chicken sandwiches from Chick-fil-A — all of which are still hot!
  • The conference immediately feels more professional. Multiple people begin asking about next year’s conference as well as personally thank the organizers right after lunch!
  • Everyone applauds Christina and the 2 other people she recruited to help her. Clearly she’s someone you can depend on to do more next time.
2 different approaches to delegation

Delegation Example 2 — The Ice Breaker

Let’s imagine 2 scenarios where your boss is asking you to do something.

Scenario 1: The Ice-Breaker

Your boss asks you to come up with an ice-breaker for a meeting and tasks you with the following:

  • Find a few good ice-breakers that are useful for kicking off a large meeting.
  • Reach out to Cathrine to find out what ice-breaker she used in her meeting last week.
  • Contact Jim to get more thoughts, he always talked about having good ice-breaker ideas.
  • You are to have this all completed by end of day tomorrow.

Scenario 1 Outcome: Complete and Utter Waste of Time

  • You email Cathrine 3 times and message her in Slack, but she never responds. Meanwhile, Jim gives you a link to a website about conducting meetings that only briefly mentions 2 ice-breaker activities, none of which are remotely close to helpful!
  • You spend your entire next day scouring the internet and asking friends and family for ice-breaker ideas. You end up 10 different options covering various group sizes and time lengths since you aren’t sure how many people will be there.
  • The next day, your boss lets you know 8 people are going to be in the meeting, and there is a ton of material to cover. You realize there’s not going to be enough time for an ice-breaker! Plus, the meeting isn’t until next week and the group all know each other well, so there wasn’t any real urgency.
  • You aren’t invited to the leadership meeting, it all feels like a huge waste of time.
  • Good old Cathrine finally responds with a bunch of great ice-breakers you no longer need.
An Opportunity Instead of a Task

Scenario 2: The Opportunity

Your boss says we have a chance to finish our project 6 months earlier if we can convince people to help us.

  • There’s a meeting next week with 8 team leaders, it seems like it could be a good chance to pitch the idea to them and get help.
  • It’s up to you to either come up with a pitch for the team leader meeting next week or find another way to convince others to help.

Outcome 2: You Find Fantastic Success For the Team!

  • You had already worked for two of the existing team leaders in the past— Jim, and Diane — so you scheduled lunch with each of them separately.
  • Diane thinks it makes perfect sense to partner up since they could use a bit of our help on their project as well.
  • Diane also believes one of the other team leads — Barry — may have built something last quarter that could solve another big part of the project for you. They may be looking for opportunities for others to use their solutions.
  • You schedule a meeting with Diane, Barry, and your boss to talk about the possibilities. Barry’s team is excited for your team to use their solutions, and your boss is thrilled with the new plan.
  • You’re invited to the lead meeting next week to present the new collaboration plan with Diane and Barry, as well as share the new estimate of completing the project in 1/2 of the originally estimated time!
  • All the team leads are impressed by your plan, and after the project has completed, your boss gives you a much-deserved promotion and raise!

Why Scenario 2 Was Better — The 3 Rules For World-Changing Delegation

1) Delegate the Good Stuff

  • Your boss asked you to handle a critical problem with lots of visibility, so your motivation to come up with creative solutions was high

2) Delegate Problems Not Tasks

  • Your boss spelled out the problem at hand and what the goal was. There was a suggestion of asking or help at the team-leader meeting, however, the door was left open for you to consider alternatives because you understood the size and scope of the problem.

3) Success Means Others Doing Things Differently

  • Instead of assuming the team leader meeting was the best way to get help, your boss only suggested it as an option and left it open to you to decide. In the end, you tried something quite different and it worked out better and faster than anyone would have expected.

Your boss gave you everything you needed to start trying to figure out solutions. This lead to you asking details about who the other team leaders were, and realizing you had worked with Diane and Jim in the past.

Thus, with little direction, you were able to effectively solve a critical problem and your boss spent the week focused on cutting some major operation costs and hiring 5 new team members.

3 Rules For World-Changing Delegation

Conclusion

By trusting people to solve important problems, they are motivated by the opportunity at hand as well as our trust in them to solve something that matters.

By delegating a problem instead of giving tasks or commands, we motivate others to gather all the information they need to own a problem and come up with their own creative solutions.

By giving people the space to solve a problem however they see fit — while sharing thoughts on how we might approach it — we motivate others to consider our idea as well as think outside the box for alternatives.

By following these 3 Rules For World-Changing Delegation, we can fuel the flame of motivation. With enough motivated people helping us, there’s nothing in the world we can’t change!

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