What No One Ever Told You About Delegation

When I opened the refrigerator this morning, the space Depositphotos_49100743_s-2015normally occupied by 100% natural orange juice was taken by an alternative. The unnaturally long list of unrecognizable ingredients and pledges of less sugar and calories raised my hackles almost as fast as my pause raised my husband’s defenses. He thought we could try it. I thought he had flipped.

In some marriages, this could be the burnt toast that breaks the camel’s back. Why? Because we shop the perimeter of the grocery store. Our cart contains little other than fresh fruit, vegetables, chicken, and seafood. Since we don’t squeeze our own juice or keep a cow, we venture into the center aisles for things like juice and milk. However, the criteria that drive our selections remain constant. The brand of juice and milk matters little; the length and contents of the ingredients list matters a lot.

Since my husband does most of the shopping, harmony depends on a clear and shared understanding of these decision criteria. His criteria and mine are not exactly the same, which is why he often buys things for himself that he knows I am unlikely to eat. Trouble comes only when he buys meals or staples for me based on criteria like “it looked interesting” or “it was less expensive” while violating all the other criteria. Interesting and less expensive are not reasons to abandon my priorities, especially not for something as basic as orange juice that I drink every day.

Now imagine if I delegated the shopping responsibilities to someone else without creating this shared understanding. Vegetables swimming in fatty sauces and fish coated with salty breading would disturb the peace purchase after purchase. I’d turn up my nose, send him back, and seriously question his intelligence and judgment. Meanwhile, our shopper would suffer equals parts anger with my pickiness and frustration with his inability to “get it.”

Well, guess what. A lot of your employees are angry with “your pickiness” and frustrated with their inability to “get it.” And they aren’t just angry, they are costing you a bundle.

When you see a lack of good judgment or a lack of care, that’s rarely the problem. The real problem is that you haven’t given your employees a good grasp of your objectives – the criteria that must govern the decisions. They don’t have a means of assessing success by your standards. They are like my proposed shopper who doesn’t understand that my standards for good food require few ingredients and minimal processing. You can’t expect people to bring you an alternative you can support if you don’t start with a shared understanding of how to recognize a good alternative when you see one.

In a recent meeting at a major hospital, the director of strategy explained that she needed to improve the presentation skills of the people in her group. She went on to explain how her group does great research, develops terrific plans, but then struggles to persuade the executive team to adopt those plans and take action. She sees better presentation skills as the solution. It’s not. The problem is that she brought the executives an alternative without first agreeing on objectives. That’s like my shopper bringing me a happy meal or fish sticks. Had she worked first with the executives to establish a shared understanding of the criteria that would be used to assess her group’s proposal, they’d be in like Flynn regardless of the quality of their presentation skills. But wait a minute! What are these executives thinking when they create a strategy group and then neglect to sit down with them to establish shared objectives? Why hire expensive talent and let them hunt blind? “Nope. Wrong rock. Bring us a different rock.”

In another case, a client of mine explained how an executive had asked him to look into a marketing opportunity that involved installing sponsored sun screen dispensers in public parks. He unleashed his group to research vendors, investigate park and rec rules and regulations, estimate start up and maintenance expenses, evaluate current market penetration, and examine similar actions by competitors. Then they assembled a proposal. The time invested in this effort was definitely non-trivial and delayed other important work. What criteria would govern the decision to accept or reject his recommendation? He had no idea. He just developed the best proposal he could. Turns out, no proposal was needed. The request to “look into” the opportunity was impulsive and quickly forgotten. A short discussion about objectives would have saved as much as 40 hours of highly paid effort and kept this team focused on their real priorities.  ”Nope. Wrong rock. Oops, I guess we didn’t even need a rock.”

There is one clear distinction at the heart of all of these problems: objectives vs. alternatives.

  • Objectives are the criteria that will govern a decision. These include priorities, goals, and constraints. For food, they might include guidelines for additives, processing, or allergies. For strategies, they include things like time horizons, scope, risk, growth targets, priorities, and assumptions about the economy and future performance. For the sponsorship opportunity, they include things like business priorities, target markets, product plans, and investment desires.
  • Alternatives are the multitude of possibilities that need to be weighed against those objectives. I don’t think I have to explain alternatives when it comes to food. For the strategy team, alternatives can run the gamut from huge steps like closing facilities or buying another hospital to more cautious options like modifying the mix of services or changing the nature of the patient-provider relationship by making providers accessible by email. The marketing guy’s proposal could nix or support the sponsorship of sun cream dispensers, could propose an alternative sponsorship, or could suggest marketing dollars be used to upgrade the website instead. The range of possibilities is enormous is all you’ve been given is to “look into it.”

The chance of agreeing on an alternative without first agreeing on objectives is about zero. Just ask the strategy team!

If you want to delegate effectively, establish trusting relationships, and develop employee capabilities so they can assume increasing levels of responsibility, you must:

  1. Consciously establish objectives separately from alternatives.
  2. Recognize that the people most able to establish objectives are not necessarily the same people able to come up with alternatives.
  3. Carefully include appropriate people in each of those efforts.
  4. Check in on the state of each separately and as needed.
  5. Use the objectives as a means of developing employees who are normally caught up only in the alternatives.

Take the personal shopper. You have two choices for managing this situation successfully. Either you provide a detailed shopping list so the shopper doesn’t have to make any decisions  or you carefully explain your objectives (everything from type of diet to budget) so your buyer will make the same decisions and select the same foods you would. It is unlikely this person would ever influence your objectives. You must decide whether you want him influencing the alternatives.

The strategy team is a different story. The objectives absolutely must be established by the executives and the strategy team working together. If the strategy team is left to establish objectives alone, their proposals will suffer a painful fate: ”Nope. Wrong rock. Bring us a different rock.” If the executives establish objectives without input from the strategy team, it isn’t a strategy team. It’s a bunch of order takers hoping to learn enough about those objectives so they can produce a plan that isn’t “the wrong rock.”

A high level marketing guy should have a lot to say about the objectives associated with sponsorships, but still needs input from above. Once those objectives are established, it is totally possible that the executives need not be involved again.

A less experienced marketing guy is likely to dwell in the land of alternatives, but still needs to understand how the executives are thinking and what would constitute success in their eyes. He also stands to learn a tremendous amount from the discussions that establish objectives and evaluate possible alternatives against those objectives. Consider having him take the first stab at identifying the objectives or give him a first draft and let him flesh it out.

By making a clear distinction between objectives and alternatives, you can involve the right people at the right time and ensure agreement each step of the way. The result will be more successful delegation and the ability to develop the business acumen and skills of your employees.


This article originally appeared on Forbes.com on November 30th, 2015.

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