Do You Have a Problem with Delegation?

In any endeavor, there is a natural pyramidal structure to progress. You begin doing everything yourself. You have some success and hire two people to help you. Things continue to do well, and you hire four more.

Every person “below” you does something you were doing at one time. If you are smart, you give away the less-important tasks (or those you don’t do well) and focus on the critical ones that make your project grow.

The process can continue indefinitely unless someone you’ve hired won’t make a pyramid of his own. The reluctance to create such pyramids is known in management theory as “a problem with delegation.”

People who have such problems typically build inverted pyramids with themselves on the bottom and the weight of all the people they’ve hired on top of them. Since they don’t (won’t or can’t) trust these others to do the details of their work (“No one can do it as well as I,” “It’s faster if I just do it myself,” or “I can’t afford the mistakes”), they end up supporting the people who are supposed to be supporting them. Eventually, the weight is too great and they break down — as fallen heroes.

Some of the best and smartest people I’ve ever worked with are inverted-pyramid builders. Often they are technical people, but sometimes they are marketers and product managers.   If you are an inverted-pyramid builder, you are:

* extremely busy

* irreplaceable

* very stressed

Pyramids are not meant to be inverted. And for good reason. There is a natural law of economics that corresponds to the physical laws that determine the correct position of pyramids. It’s called “the law of comparative advantage,” and it says that you should spend your time where you’ll get the greatest benefit from your effort.

Management consultant Stan Portny points out that “you need to recognize that even if a person is not as good as you are at a task, it may be worth it to delegate so it frees you up to do another task you’re uniquely qualified to do and one that will generate more benefits.”

But even if you don’t invert your pyramids, you may still have a problem with delegation. You may have a problem deciding how much responsibility to give up to whom and when. If you think of delegation in those terms, you can see that everyone to some extent has a delegation problem — or challenge.

It may help to think of delegation in terms of six levels. As Portny suggests, an employee should understand that you expect him to handle his assignments in one of the following ways:

Level 1. Get some facts and bring them to you.

Level 2. Get some facts and make several recommendations.

Level 3. Do the above (level 2), and be prepared to implement the recommendation that you pick.

Level 4. Do the above and then pick one of his own recommendations and be ready to go with it unless you say “no.”

Level 5. Take on the task. Do the analysis. Take action. And let you know what happened.

Level 6. Do his job. Consult with you only if he has questions.