How to Delegate Work 101

Long ago I found being delegated to was often a confusing process. Later I found guidance in a number of sources on how to delegate clearly. It turned out that if you take the right factors into account it can be quite easy to delegate effectively (in my team’s opinions as well as mine!). It is that tangle of right factors that makes it easy to get delegation wrong too.

Let’s explore then “What are the keys to getting it right”?

First, understand that delegation is a dialogue. A two way transaction.

Second, that the content of the transaction changes with the combined competency and character of the people involved.

Third, that it’s a whole conversation from initiating the delegation through to agreeing when obligations have been discharged.

This combination of factors leads to some situational variations in the dialogues.

How To Delegate 101: From Both Sides of the ‘Transaction’

As delegator you have a duty to:

  • Be clear about what you want – there’s more details on the pitfalls below
  • Provide the resources, support and environment for the delegatee’s success
  • Make the reporting and escalation path clear
  • Be responsive to reports and escalations.

As recipient of the delegation you have a duty to:

  • Confirm the performance criteria are mutually understood and agreed
  • Provide the skill and will to turn the resources into the required result – more below
  • Know how to assess status, report it and escalate issues appropriately

The above is nice for a text book. The real world always gets in the way. Understanding how to handle the variations is easier when we have a default approach for the ideal situation.

The above defines the duties; below I’ll add each party’s rights and the ‘how to’ steps. Mostly but not entirely by remaining within the cosy world of the ideal.

Be Clear on Requirements and Confirm Performance Criteria

Requirements matched to agreed performance measurement criteria are a pair (or the same thing stated twice). They are the opposite ends of one conversation.

Life is easier when the requirements are complete, clear, realistic and stable from before delegation starts. Life doesn’t always match the ideal though. When requirements are evolving or unclear then that affects the delivery life-cycle best suited to needs. Delivery life-cycles are a bit beyond our scope here, but I’ll touch on them below to give at least enough to allow you to look for relevant guidance.

The exchange of requirement and measurement criteria starts with the delegator who must be able to state the end result that they require. There are two ways to define what is to be done:

  1. Either: State what you want achieved (Output or deliverable or product etc) in which case omit instruction about actions to be taken unless they are constraint. You don’t have to know how to achieve the result in this case but your delegatee does have to know (or discover) how to achieve it.
  2. Or: State what you want done (Behaviour or action or service etc) in which case recognise that the end of the delegation is the actions taken whether they yield the result you imagined or not! In this case you do have to be an expert but your delegatee can be a complete beginner.

It is best not to mix the two approaches. Specifying results or specifying actions works best. However, blurring of boundaries is more real-world in most circumstances. We will address it below.

Understand the Context for Success

When delegating well – whichever party is the expert (and it could be both or neither) – we must consider and account for the interaction of dependant factors.

For example, by considering if duration is fixed for a variable scope and skill level, or if duration is variable based on fixed scope and capability (this choice is the core of the difference between different delivery life-cycles).

When you delegate, you create accountability in yourself and responsibility in those you delegate too.

You are accountable for:

  • the target set
  • the constraints imposed
  • selecting the right people to delegate too
  • the provision of resources matched to the target (such as results from deciding which of duration and scope are to be the variable that is dependant on the other)
  • the establishment of a working environment that enables success and
  • the handling of issues – an issue being a situation that is or is predicted to be outside agreed constraints.

In short, you are accountable for the success of the responsible delegatees.

How Both Parties Should Deal With Issues

The challenge for those who are responsible is that their authority is often limited. When a circumstance arises that is outside their constraints, they must relocate it for resolution. In other words, they pass it on to someone else to deal with. This is an escalation.

The duty to act on escalations rests with the accountable person: ie the delegator (that’s you). You might not have the ability to deal with the issue either, and you might have to pass it on to someone else to resolve – perhaps upwards to your manager, or back to a customer.

It’s the quality of the escalation chain that determines how well an organisation copes with situations outside the norms.

When escalation is dysfunctional – because either decisions aren’t made, decisions made don’t ‘stick’ or are made too slowly – then the organisation suffers. An issue becomes a resolvable problem when it is passed to someone who has both the insight about what to do and the authority to approve the actions required.

Issues relocated to decision makers with authority and insight equal to the challenge may mean the escalation involves both technical and financial or strategic decision-making ability. In other words, you might need to get various different people involved as you need a combination of different decision making authorities to handle the issue.

How To Report Delegated Work

In theory, the only reason to report when there is no need to escalate anything is to maintain the context for someone who may receive an escalation later. The reporting process should just be “so when I bring you an escalation you will already be familiar with the context needed to make the required decisions and take the required actions”.

In practice, things are different. It’s common to request routine reporting because the people involved are comfortable with a range of degrees of oversight and because the whole delegation process is within a more complex environment than my ideal textbook description here fully describes.

How To Delegate to Anyone, Regardless of Their Experience

A major component of effective delegation is matching the level of constraints and discretion to the competency of the parties involved – Delegator and Delegatee.

To delegate to an expert

  • Agree the outcome with them.
  • Agree what ‘done’ looks like and how you will both know that the work is finished.
  • Agree the constraints imposed on the work.

If as delegator you are not an expert then expect the delegatee to probe and question to determine the conditions that have to be met to close the delegation at its end.

To delegate from an expert to a beginner

  • Demonstrate the actions required (describing them is rarely sufficient).
  • Explain the in-process tests that confirm each action is correct.
  • Watch the beginner practice until they demonstrate achieving the required result more often than not.

(The ratio of success to failure that is acceptable depends on the degree of threat from failure and on whether a mistake is recoverable and actions are thus re-runnable.)

To delegate to an intermediate

If our delegatee is no longer a complete beginner but they are not yet an expert, then the delegation process  is different.

Move from demonstrating actions to firm support by asking: “For this objective tell me how would you achieve the desired result? Please describe and or show me the actions will you apply. How will you know when actions have succeeded?”

As delegator and expert we can now guide the responses to be complete and sequenced correctly with the right confirmations of successful execution.

To delegate to someone you trust to do the job (but who isn’t an expert)

This level is when it is appropriate to say “This is the required result, have a think, let me know what you will do at these thresholds or at any time that you want any support or clarification. Between checks on intentions I expect autonomous delivery or timely escalation”.

Summary of the Four Delegation ‘Styles’ Above

  • From expert to fresh learner: Demonstrate the actions required. Explain how you check and or plan each step. Supervise the beginner’s attempts with feedback on steps executed well or requiring restart or revision.
  • From expert to intermediate: Ask “Tell me how will you deliver the result or action and how will you know each step is OK before you take action” – correct omissions and errors.
  • From expert to competent practitioner: Suggest “Please deliver the result, within these constraints. Do you need any support at the moment, I’ll come check again later and you can come back to me (‘escalate’) at any time if that changes.”
  • From anyone to expert: “This is the result I want here are the resources, the constraints and the escalation path, confirm your agreement then go make it happen”.

Responsibilities of Delegation

When you accept a delegation you accept responsibility. To be meaningful, responsibility must be voluntary and understood by both parties.

You are responsible for:

  • Seeking guidance equal to your competency level – which is none if you’re expert, support, perhaps mentoring if you’re competent, supervision and feedback if you are intermediate or training if you are a fresh learner.
  • Combining energy and will, skills, the resources received, the constraints received and the reporting regime into a work pattern that keeps the delegator informed of status within the delegator’s ability to correct and rescue any under-performance that might occur.

Delivery Life-Cycle Options

The choice of delivery life-cycle is a major factor in all work.  Before establishing an agreed supervisory regime we must assess ‘how well suited is this request to pro-active versus reactive styles of control. The whole topic is a big discussion and here I intend to be brief, so detail and nuance is off-lined to a future post.

Clear and Stable Requirements Versus Unclear Unstable Requirements

In short then: any set of customer requirements can range from clear, stable and well-known to evolving. Any supplier’s delivery approach can range from tightly pre-defined by procedure to exploratory trial and error. Pre-defined procedure only works when requirements are clear and stable. Its only safe when experience has proved many times before that the procedures fit the requirements. Proven procedures and measurements to confirm their correct use are  sometimes expressed in standards and regulations. The whole may then be called ‘Best Practice’. Best practice can often be applied as a single journey from objective’s definition to result’s delivery, or at most via a phased approach.

The opposite end of the spectrum is often situational adaptation of expert opinions in an iterative and incremental manner that may evolve new expertise. This approach may be described as adaptive or expert-practice or ‘agile ways of working’ or exploratory or research or prototyping. (I’m not suggesting these terms are all necessarily equivalent).

What is important is that both the delegator and the delivery person/ group understand and agree how the objective’s nature will affect the work’s conduct, reporting and control regime.

Further terms to search beyond ‘adaptive’, iterative’, ‘incremental’, ‘waterfall’ and ‘agile’ are ‘Cynefin’, and ‘Wicked Problem’ and ‘Conscious competence’.

The Impact of People’s Character

Of course people are different! Different in many ways. One that matters in the delegation stakes is our view of adequate supervision. We each have an opinion or preference on the spectrum of ‘adequate’ for being supervised and supervising others. If these points of view are mismatched, then there will be some angst on one side or the other.

The two extremes in each axis are:

  • ‘I’ll ask if I need help but otherwise leave me to it’ through to ‘sit with me, watch and support me’.
  • ‘I’m here if you need me, let me know’ through to ‘If we do this together we can compare notes, we can share our insights’.

There are thus, crudely four combinations

1) “I’ll supervise closely” with “leave me alone till I call out”

2) “I’ll supervise closely” with “please stay close by”

3 “I’m available if needed” with “please stay close by”

4) “I’m here if needed” with “leave me alone till I call out”.

Two of these situations lead to stress: either the feeling of having been abandoned or the feeling of being stifled.

The other two can create feelings of mutual respect and support. Within the four we need a compatible view. Essentially this is: how frequently and exhaustively is the reporting process expected to occur and with what result?

The Right Supervisory Level

When delegating we create accountability in ourselves for the result required at the cost of the resources used. Being accountable is always a serious business and can also be a stressful one. The degree of supervision that is right needs to balance the elements of people’s character with our own view of what is required to alleviate the stress and recognise seriousness.

There is a procedural approach that I recommend.

  1. As delegator, ask the delegatee what supervision and reporting regime (frequency, content, follow-up) seems right to them.
  2. Consider the response to decide if it feels in your opinion to be right, to be too loose or too tight.
    1. If too tight, then accept the delegatee’s view and at the first or second review point to where results are as expected. Suggest that this is evidence to loosen the arrangements. As the delegee proves to themselves that they are able to perform progress from “I’ll demonstrate”, through “you show me”, through “What do you think are the next actions” to eventually “Call me when you have an escalation”.
    2. If too loose, then explain to the delegatee that for you to feel comfortable about your accountability you are imposing a tighter control regime. Also explain the mechanisms and triggering situations by which the supervision will be loosened – if any! Reconsider at each review point “Is the degree of reporting matched to need, level of confidence and character of the parties involved”?


Delegation can be a complex process due to the many variables involved. Points to ponder are:

  • Can I delegate outcome or must I delegate actions to be taken?
  • What delivery life-cycle is the nature of the delegation matched to (and between us all do we understand how to use the best approach to best effect!)
  • Am I and the recipient of my delegation matched in reporting character across the possibly evolving level of their competency?

With the above points considered the only challenge to excellent delegation are the vagaries by which the real world manages to frustrate good process!