Delegate or die

Posted by in Productivity

Delegate or die

It’s wednesday, 9 PM. For the third time in the last hour, you glance at your clock, then at the pile of e-mails in your inbox. Then back at the clock. Something has gone horribly wrong somewhere, and you suddenly realize you’re in over your head. It’s time to delegate.


You. Are. Not. Alone.


We all go there. Whether from pride, a lack of clarity concerning the actual amount of work involved or an ill-conceived desire to please, we’re presented with an opportunity to take on work – and take on too much. Our intentions are often the very best: we seek achievement, and – subsequently – success. Then, we faceplant spectacularly, because we failed to realize the extent of the workload. Ultimately, though, our collective butts are still on the line, and the work needs to get done. Your alternatives are as follows: seek an untimely death by overexerting your abilities, or learn how to delegate. Fast.


You can delegate to anyone


Your employee. A colleague. Your boss. A business partner. Your kids. The spouse (careful…). You can delegate to anyone, including yourself – by which I mean delegating tasks nobody else can or should do to yourself, while you seek the assistance of others for what is less than critical. This is just about the most soothing thing anyone can tell someone who’s under a lot of pressure, but realizing that you have the possibility to delegate is just the first step. The second is to identify whom to delegate to, and the third is how exactly to communicate your desire.


Before proceeding, you should take note of the following: the goal when delegating is to ensure the outcome satisfies your quality requirements to the best possible degree. Whereas one person may require a very explicit set of instructions and clearly defined boundaries for when to consult with you, another may be given free reigns. This depends not only on the general character of the person, but also to which degree they possess relevant experience for executing the task.


You can delegate to a subordinate


This one is easy – right? You just ask them politely, or order them to if they won’t comply. Alas, no. Although you are within your full rights to do the latter, you should avoid it at all costs – and particularly when under stress since you can easily rub someone the wrong way. You may in rare cases have to resort to ordering (still with polite affirmation), and if you do there’s only one way to properly do it: tell the person in regard you understand they have issues, but from the alternatives available to you, he or she is your best option for a high quality result. Don’t discuss matters beyond that point; just let them know you have made a decision, and expect them to act accordingly.


You can delegate to a ‘friendly’


Either directly or indirectly, via your common superior. If you’re going the direct route, aim for a colleague whom you have a good working relationship with and whom understands the importance of sharing the workload. This could entail a long speech on your behalf, but as is often the case simple does it: you’d be shocked at how willing people are to help if only you ask politely. Just tell him or her you’re out of your depth and would immensely appreciate some help – and make sure you offer to return the favour, since just about everybody needs a helping hand every now and then.


You can even delegate to a ‘hostile’


Failing the availability of a ‘friendly’, you’re left with a more challenging option: someone whom, for whatever reason, you either do not particularly want to – or even loathe to – ask. The hard sell, in other words. The trick here is to realize you’ve got one shot, and one shot only. The ask politely rule still applies, but you should also take great care when preparing your query to angle it from a perspective that says “Yes, I need help. But there’s also something in it for you.” Such as this. “Look, I’m out of my depth here and could really use someone with your skills to help. I’ll make sure to mention it to Frank when the report is delivered.”


Explaining at length won’t help a bit. The person in regard may not care, or may even take personal satisfaction in denying help – but even the resident office jerk enjoys being treated as if he was not the office jerk, and particularly feeling wanted. Needed, even. But if you strike out, don’t push it. Just tell them you understand they’ve probably got a lot on their plate, too, and that you’ll see if you can find some other way to solve the situation even if you would have preferred it to be them.


Why the latter part, you ask? Because it’s all part of your evil scheme, that’s why.


You can delegate through, or even to your boss


So, you’ve struck out elsewhere. You don’t have any subordinates (you really should work on that), you’re out of friendlies (you really should work on that, too), and the hostiles are… well, predictably hostile. It’s time for the boss move, and you’d better get your act together. You’ll have to be able to readily admit that, yes, as much as you wanted a challenge, you underestimated the workload. And you’re going to fix it. It goes something like this: “It’s my fault and I’ll work my arse off to fix it, but we’ll suffer on quality or be delayed unless I can get some more hours on this. I need your help to see which other resources might be able to help for a period of time.”


In doing this, you’re simultaneously taking responsibility and keeping a solution-oriented focus, which your boss will appreciate. Also, you’re not asking if you can get help. You’re asking who you can get help from. There’s a big difference. Also, this is where your evil scheme comes into play: if you now steer your boss’ attention carefully in the direction of a person you’ve attempted approaching directly, they won’t be surprised if your fellow superior approaches them – nor will they feel quite as much as if you’re trying to force them to do it through your boss since you’ve complimented the openly and said you would have preferred if they could do it.


On a related note: at this point, you’d better be certain you can answer every single possible question under the heavens concerning your workload and the specifics of why you need help. If you can’t and you’ve got a proper leader, he or she will tear you a new one. Or two, just to get the message across.


If you’ve got this under control, you can even delegate to your boss. Much of the same tactics apply: cough up first, then ask for help – but this time around, under the guise of checking whether you have your priorities in order. (This isn’t actually a guise, it’s just common sense when you’re beleaguered to get someone more experienced to see whether you’re on the right course.) Then, when you get to talking about things, ask whether he might be able to help with a particularly difficult item on your list. Wouldn’t you know it: bosses, too, like being appreciated – and like anyone else, they’re surprisingly willing to help if you honestly throw your cards and ask nicely.


You can delegate to a complete stranger


Last, but not least, there are things you can outsource to complete strangers. If you’re responsible for your own budget, hire a temp or outsource some of the work, depending on its nature. If not, try this route if your boss hasn’t got any internal resources to relocate to you as proposed above. If you go this route, though, you should make sure you use a well-renowned service and pay a little more, and be extremely specific when you communicate your requirements. Working with professionals reduces the risk of failure, but as you simply don’t know one another well there’s a context to what you say that may easily get lost in communication.


Go forth, and delegate. You’ll thank yourself when you can celebrate not having had a single heart surgery in the first half century of your life.