When people do what you wouldn’t

The trouble with delegation is that people don’t always do what you would have done in their place. They are not mere extensions of your will. 

There was a time when this was frustrating and I would assume incompetence or even malice. These days, when someone does something different to what I would have done In their place I try to reflect on two questions:

What do I know that they don’t? What do they know that I don’t?

I’m convinced that most people act in good faith and, when they make decisions that I disagree with, it therefore stems from a different perspective on the world. Sometimes, shockingly, that perspective is more accurate than my own. And, where it is not, it is partly my fault for not providing better information.

On one occasion I become frustrated at what I thought to be extravagant spending on an event. But I then wondered whether they knew the same things that I did about the cost pressures on the organisation. I am now as transparent as I can be about finances, and I find people are pretty frugal. And sometimes when they make significant expenditures they are based on a real insight – that I lack – into frontline needs. 

If you want to operate a culture of trust (and why wouldn’t you? It is the ultimate force for productivity and efficiency) you first have to ensure that people are worthy of being trusted. This means many things: skills, incentives, etc. But it also fundamentally means that they possess the information they need to make good decisions: goals, context, boundaries and principles. What do you know that they don’t? And why don’t they know it?

Obviously, the underlying rationale or objectives, both immediate and long term, are essential. The military are increasingly sophisticated at this, with their concepts of “mission command”. If you ever issue an instruction without giving a reason, you are missing a vital opportunity to train and educate and unleash effective discretion. 

Boundaries and principles are important too. Think of them in these terms: “you can do anything you like to achieve this goal as long as you don’t do x”. Be clear on your x’s. Think of it as the Meatloaf management principle. 

So far, I’ve focused on getting stuff out of my head and into others. That matters. And it is far harder than we think. One hasty summary of your thinking is never sufficient. You are going to be repeating yourself a lot. But the second question is also important. What do they know that you don’t? Your colleagues, especially on the frontline, will possess vital information and insight that you lack. A spirit of enquiry is appropriate when disagreements emerge. 

You will never achieve a perfect symmetry of information. Indeed, that is not desirable. Different perspectives are valuable: the aim is to bring them together in dialogue, not create perfect unity. Front line colleagues possess customer insights and pragmatic views of what really works, but they have a local perspective. You have the big picture and the long term view. You can’t share every detail with everyone without overwhelming them nor can you master every detail without overwhelming yourself. 

So the next time someone does something you wouldn’t, try asking: what do I know that they don’t? What do they know that I don’t? And shape the flow of information in your organisation to bring the two perspectives into conversation.

2 thoughts on “Delegation

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