The “Aha” Moment

As a mentor, I’m frequently asked for advice about delegation, a skill that many new managers find difficult to master. I firmly believe that delegation is difficult until the first time an employee surprises you by doing something better than you would have done yourself. That is the “aha” moment that changes everything.

At home, I had such “aha” moments as I’ve watched my children do their chores over the years. When they were young and just starting to help prepare meals, I remember asking them to get strawberries for lunch. If I had done this myself, I would have washed the berries, removed the hulls, and cut them into bite sized pieces. My children “streamlined” the process by washing the berries and putting them directly on their plates. Call them lazy or call them clever, but they knew they could get away without cutting the berries because they could nibble around the hulls.

A more recent “aha” moment happened as I watched my teenagers divvy-up household tasks. When I asked them to clean up after dinner, they figured out how to split the work of loading the dishwasher, putting away left-overs, and scrubbing the pots. If I were the task master, I’m sure I would hear cries of, “That’s not fair” or “I had to wash the pots last night.” Instead, they worked it out without any help from me.

With all due respect to my children, the “aha” moments I’ve had at work are more significant. I’ve been impressed over and over again with how my staff approaches tasks, utilizes their network of colleagues to brainstorm solutions, and creates top-notch deliverables. They get more done than I could possibly do myself, and they do it well.

Whether as a parent or as a leader, I see three reasons to delegate:

  • Delegation frees me to do higher-level tasks. At work, this means I can spend time thinking strategically about an opportunity. At home, I can spend time on a hobby or paying bills.
  • Delegation teaches new skills to my team or my children. My employees need to know how to talk to customers, write executive summaries, and prioritize work. My kids need to know how to tidy their rooms, use the microwave, do laundry, and clean a toilet.
  • Delegation involves others to create better ways of doing something or thinking about something. Co-workers often identify better approaches to get something done. Teens might play their favorite music to make a chore fun.

However, I realize that delegation can be difficult to do well. Imagine when I ask my children to tidy their rooms. In my mind, a clean room has certain characteristics: the bed is made, clean clothes are put away, and dirty clothes are in a laundry basket or, better yet, in the washing machine. Not surprisingly, my children may have a different definition of a clean room. It may mean everything that was on the floor is now piled on their desk, or that the basket of clean laundry is tucked away in the closet, out of sight. The potential for misunderstanding is huge.

There are so many reasons why delegation can fail, at home or at work, including:

  • No clear definition of success. “I’ll know it when I see it” doesn’t work when delegating. I need to describe what a finished work deliverable will contain or what a clean room will look like. I regularly remind myself that my employees and my children can’t read my mind.
  • No context of why a task needs to be done. “Because I said so” doesn’t work well over the long term either as a parent or as a leader. I need to explain the consequences of not doing the chore or the work assignment. Will I take away a privilege from my child? Will our department be denied a budget request if the proposal isn’t completed? By being specific, I try to motivate my staff or my children to do the task.
  • No timeframe for completion. We all tend to be excellent procrastinators. However, if I want my kids to clear their backpacks from the family room before guests come to dinner, I need to be clear about the deadline.
  • Relegation, not delegation. I don’t ask my kids or my staff to do something that I wouldn’t do myself. If there is undesirable, dirty work to be done, I take turns doing it.
  • Micromanagement. While I may share suggestions for tackling a project, or check in every so often on larger projects, I try not to micromanage. This is often challenging because I am a bit of a control freak. But, I try to let my child or my employee make decisions about how to get a project done. Otherwise, they will learn only from the way I have done things before and the mistakes I have made, which, in turn, influence how I do things. They need to experience their own challenges, make mistakes, and figure out approaches that work best for them.

So, whether I am asking my kids to help with housework or asking an employee to take on a new project, I follow this simple best practice:

  1. Describe the task
  2. Explain why the task is important
  3. Specify what success will look like
  4. Identify when the task must be completed
  5. Step away
  6. Observe and learn by how the task gets done

By following this best practice, I’ve had many “aha” moments. I look forward to hearing about your experiences, and I hope that your “aha” moments start rolling in.


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© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “The “Aha” Moment

  1. I had to laugh when I read the reasons why delegation can fail. So true that it’s far easier to appreciate the upsides of delegating than to grapple with the challenge of actually making it work. Since I’ll be bringing in the teaching perspective here, I think the best analogy, in terms of “clear definition of success” is the rubric (what we used to call an assignment). Twice this semester the students I’ve been tutoring have presented teachers rubrics for essay assignments that were very difficult to decode. One teacher had given me her email address so I wrote asking for clarification and that interaction was instructive in itself because she wrote back a full-page reply essentially repeating but not clarifying the rubric. I had to tell her I was still confused. It gave me an insight into how students must feel when they approach professors during office hours to ask a question only to find the answer baffling. The teacher did clarify the rubric: what it came down to was a completely different definition of the word ‘summary’ in writing. The student and I thought of a summary as pulling out the main points and synthesizing them. The teacher, who specifically asked that students not summarize, thought of a summary as brief description of what a text is about. (She did want students to pull out the main points and synthesize them.)

    1. What an interesting example, Susan, of how instructions can be confusing or misunderstood by those you are delegating to (or instructing). Thank you for sharing it.

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