How to Train Yourself to Delegate Well
As a small business owner or founder, you may find yourself working 13-hour days occasionally, burning the midnight oil over everything from making sure shipments get out on time to big-picture funding requests, opening the shop in the morning to launching the website. The first few months of start-up culture actually work against us effectively delegating tasks: we believe that no one cares as much about our business as we do. It isn't an entirely wrong-headed belief: start-up founders are particularly motivated by the prospect of their own success.
However, start-up owners do not have endless energy resources, and if you consistently overwork, you will make the same mistakes you fear would happen if you delegated more. Whether your particular business requires outsourcing, employees, or working with vendors, every founder eventually has to learn how to delegate in order to succeed and grow sustainably. The key, however, is to delegate in ways that don't require you to compromise the quality that you have grown to expect from your own efforts.
Step 1: Think About Your Own Process
Many people skip this step, and it sometimes results in them getting the negative results they expected. When you do the task that you are considering delegating, think about this:
- What do you do first, second, third, etc.? What is the expected process?
- What steps would be easy to skip but are there for a reason?
- What quality benchmarks do you hold yourself to? Find a way to name them even if it is a difficult process.
- What clear issues do you want to avoid? Talking about what a negative outcome looks like can sometimes help achieve the positive one.
Write these things down; pull together comprehensive instructions. Yes, the first time you do it, you may be a little overly careful, but over time, you will learn how to pare down your instructions based on the high-quality results you've gotten from delegating in the past.
Step 2: Communicate Your Needs Clearly From the Outset
Take these answers and convert them into instructions for whoever you are delegating to. Make it clear, be it an employee or a vendor, that you expect this level of quality for the price/wages you are paying. Don't threaten or be overly negative, but make it clear that your continued connection depends on this information.
All too often, founders assume that their standards of quality are the same as their vendors or their employees, but there are rarely utterly objective standards for quality. In the aftermath of a communication breakdown, it is easy to say that it was "obvious" what needed to be done, but often it was not. It is so much better to begin the process with too much communication than to discover, after a major breakdown, that there needed to be better instructions.
Step 3: Check-In After You Fully Delegate
Once you give the good instructions - leave the people alone to do their work.
I know; that's excruciating, if you are accustomed to having a hand in every task. However, if they don't come back to you with questions, stick to whatever schedule of communication you agreed to. Spot-checks that weren't planned ahead of time will make both vendors and employees feel micromanaged and like you don't trust them. What's more, you often won't be able to tell mid-process whether they are doing the work correctly; the in-process work doesn't look like the deliverable.
When there is a potential deliverable or something to evaluate, that is the moment to see whether the quality has reached your standards, not before. Have a comprehensive check-in that helps you to understand what the results are, and what has been learned along the way.
Step 4: Communicate Revised Expectations Without Emotions
This is another moment that matters: if you communicate angry disappointment to your employees or vendors, they are unlikely to learn much and may simply wish not to work with you again. Rather than framing your feedback as "this is how you failed," attempt to convey your feedback as, "here are the ways in which I need to clarify my needs."
While it can be hard to stomach, a lot of the changing expectations later in the process of a task involve giving better and better instructions. Yes, you will occasionally encounter vendors or employees who are genuinely unmotivated or willing to turn in shoddy work, but the majority want to cultivate a relationship just like you do. Give them the opportunity to grow at this point, a chance to prove that, with further direction, they can produce what you want. If they cannot, there is a possibility that you need different vendors or employees, but very little is gained by assuming they are failing maliciously.
Step 5: Develop Low-Impact Checkpoints to Ensure Long-Term Quality
As you delegate, you'll go through steps 1-4 over and over until finished processes become workflows, a routinized path through which your tasks get accomplished. You'll discover hiccups along the way, either because the process takes too long or uses too many resources, and you'll make modifications to make it better. Generally, you are better served by using your time to make the process better or the instructions more clear than you are by throwing up your hands and saying, "I'll do it myself." That doesn't mean you'll never get your hands on the tasks again; it just means that taking back that control isn't the goal.
Over time, though, your ideal should be to have less and less input on the work, as long as quality remains high. Strive to create low-impact checkpoints, places where you can monitor quality or receive reports from quality control, so that you have the peace of mind that things are functioning well. The ideal as your company grows is for you to have a clear picture of the company without the company waiting for your go-ahead for every step of your processes. The early stages can be hard, since you've probably bootstrapped so much, but getting to this point a serious sign of company growth, and truly should be celebrated.