A key reason for increasing how much you delegate is that often too many low risk decisions are made at senior levels and that means that you lose focus on strategy and oversight. Many of the leadership challenges profiled in this book highlight this problem. Delegating helps to rebalance the amount of time devoted to low risk/importance vs high risk/importance work.
When deciding what to delegate, a key consideration is the level of risk involved in the decision. That helps you decide who needs to be involved in making a decision, how much time to spend making it, how much certainty is required, and what your tolerance is for error.
People at lower levels in organisations can be unwilling to make decisions and take accountability. One of the most common reasons for this is that even if they do make a decision, senior leaders redecide anyway. It’s not only that time is wasted, their precious effort and willingness are wasted. What’s most important in terms of who makes a decision is who has the relevant data. Even if they don’t realise it, senior people can be too far away from the relevant data to make the right call.
Quite often decisions are postponed in order to increase the certainty of the decision. The risk of inaction, of not making a decision, is rarely taken into account. Sometimes postponing certainty might be the right call, but that’s only likely for high risk, high impact decisions. Aiming for a 70% certainty level can help to speed up decision making which reduces the amount of time you need to be involved.
Low levels of tolerance for error prevent delegation. But change and innovation requires a degree of error. Leaders have a choice when it comes to tolerating error; you can punish error and reward over-analysis, or you can celebrate reasonable mistakes. When there is a high level of psychological safety, people are more likely to identify small errors sooner, which means that your tolerance for mistakes can be increased.
A 70% rule can also help increase your tolerance for error
Can someone else perform the task at least 70% as well as you can? If so, then you should delegate it. It might be frustrating that the task isn’t done to your quality standard. The skill is to be able to consistently increase people’s capabilities so that they move from 70% to 100%, and they can only do that when they have the opportunity to do the tasks and get good feedback. The additional upside of allowing people to take on more tasks is that they may discover new and better ways to do them.
As the leader, delegate as much as you can, and retain the high risk, critical business decisions. There won’t be that many of them.
To delegate, you have to stop solving other people’s problems, telling them what to do and how to do it.
A sliding scale of delegation
Rather than thinking of delegation as binary – either you do or you don’t – consider what it might look like on a sliding scale. As people’s skills and confidence grow, you might delegate more responsibility.
Bill introduced a five-level sliding scale of delegation to help free up some of his time, and to demonstrate his trust in his team. He began by mapping what the five levels meant for their work. Then he shared the scale with his team. Involving them in finalizing the framework and identifying how they would use it generated improvements, ensured shared understanding, and led to the team’s strong commitment. Simply having the conversation felt empowering to them.
Level 1 has the lowest level of authority and level 5 the greatest autonomy to make decisions and take actions.
Level 1: The person assesses the issue, explains to you what they’ve learned about it, and identifies what options they would recommend. Encourage them to identify multiple options, and review their strengths and weaknesses. You make the decision, explaining why you chose the option you did.
Level 2: The person assesses the issue, identifies the options and then makes a recommendation about what to do. You retain the decision-making power, reserving the right to approve or amend the decision.
Level 3: The person makes the recommendation on what the course of action should be, and if they don’t hear back from you with eg 24 hours of receiving their recommendation, they are cleared to proceed.
Level 4: The person assesses the options, takes their recommended course of action, and informs you of the action and its outcomes. You are no longer approving decisions, but being informed about them.
Level 5: This is full delegation. The person takes care of the decision and action using their own approach, and without reporting back to you.
As new tasks and decisions arise, the level of delegation is agreed. Over time, your expectation should be that decisions are delegated at increasingly higher levels. Issues that arise can be treated as coaching moments, to clarify and confirm approval and autonomy boundaries, and to pinpoint opportunities for further development.
Increase your delegation to free up your time and energy
Use the levels to apply to tasks, not people. The same person might have tasks at different levels of delegation, due to their strengths and experiences, and the risk and importance of the particular task or decision.
The framework is a powerful guide to help people to build their skills; for some it may be a helpful reality check if their ambition is out of balance with their skills, and they want more autonomy than you are prepared to give them. In any case, it provides a simple, yet highly effective basis for shared understanding of what is expected, and what level of autonomy is appropriate.