Delegation is really hard to figure out. But it’s crazy important if you want to move as fast as a startup needs to move to be successful. Remember, speed is everything.
To delegate effectively, you need to ask a few questions:
1. How do I know what to delegate?
2. How do I inspect what I delegated?
3. How do I create a system to better delegate?
The best things to delegate are actually the things you are really good at because you know how to hire people who can do it.
This is not obvious. Most people think you should hire people to do the things you’re bad at and don’t like doing. But how would you know what skills or attributes a person needs to do those things if you’re bad at them? The only way you’ll hire the right person is if you get lucky.
Hire people for things you are good at. This way, you’ll know exactly what to look for in a candidate AND be able to evaluate that candidate’s work meaningfully.
Here’s the non-obvious delegation chart for reference:
The other kind of tasks you should delegate are ones you can hand to an API rather than a person. Ideally, these are also tasks you’re bad at and don’t like doing, so you can get them off your plate. An API is far more scalable than a person … and usually can get better at a faster rate. Great delegators are Zapier masters.
If you are going to delegate to a person, they do not need to be an employee. You can hire someone on Upwork (or your favorite labor marketplace). The advantage of delegating to an employee is that you will need to spend less time writing the delegation docs. The benefit of delegating to UpWork is that it is much more scalable.
Building a delegation system eats your time on the front end, and spits it back out (and more) on the back end.
One of the hardest things about delegation is that it usually takes longer to delegate initially … and then the returns to your time come slowly. So, you cannot delegate everything at once.
This is the biggest mistake most people make when they hire someone talented – they delegate too much, too quickly. Remember, each thing that you delegate takes your time (and the time of the person you delegated to).
Delegating a task well takes at least three times the time of the task to do. So, if a task usually takes an hour to do, it takes at least 3 hours to delegate. That adds up quickly, so be careful not to delegate too much at once.
And just because someone else is doing the task does not mean you do not have to inspect what they do. That takes time too.
So, if you delegate a task that takes you an hour a week to do, you might not break even on time until week 6. Of course, that is a fantastic return (thousands of percentages per year) in time savings … but it does come with an initial time cost.
And while some people have massive amounts of capital, all of us have a very fixed amount of time. So you need to use your time wisely to ensure your delegation investment has a high rate of return. You can only delegate in series, not parallel (or at least need to limit the number of parallel tasks).
Delegation means you need to be ok with things not done the way you’d do them.
Delegation is also an act of decentralization. At least good delegation is. The person you delegate a task to needs to have agency over the task’s goal and freedom to improvise.
If you want something done precisely to your spec, best to use a robot or API (see above). Otherwise, give humans space to breathe, change the inputs, and make mistakes.
Sometimes, the best alternative to delegation is not to do it at all.
Not all tasks need to get done. Many organizations create tasks just to keep their employees busy. Often their employees are creating reports that no one reads. If your employees are creating reports no one reads, eliminate the reports ASAP.
Part of your delegation system should include a filter that determines if a task needs to get done at all. This filter will save you a ton of time.
The biggest block to delegating efficiently is when you delegate entirely to your HR department.
Almost 100% of CEOs delegate to HR, and yet very few of them hire A-players for the HR role.
Too often, CEOs underweight HR and think it is an area about compliance. Of course, CEOs that feel that way end up hiring people that care about compliance.
HR isn’t about compliance. It’s about great capital allocation. The goal of HR is to deploy the company’s most valuable assets – its people. An HR leader makes investments in the company’s assets, grows the company’s assets, retains the company’s assets, redeploys the company’s assets, prunes the low-performing assets, and brings in more high-quality assets.
This, of course, is high-strategy. Outside of the core company strategy, this is THE AREA the CEO should be thinking about all the time.
If you are delegating to HR, make sure you’ve hired someone who is an A-Player in-step with you. Otherwise, you should take over this role yourself.
Summation: Delegate tasks you are great at and like to do, so you can hire the right person to do it. Build a system to delegate, with a filter for stuff that doesn’t need to get done at all. If you delegate to HR, make sure you’ve hired an A-Player.
Special thanks to Thomas Waschenfelder for his help and edits.