Stage 1: Bottleneck

Successful business leaders know the importance of delegation and empowerment.  In organizations, growth can be stifled where too much information, decision making or critical tasks go through a few individuals (or just one).

In a previous post we characterized this stage as the first “speed bump” that organizations need to get over to move to the next stage.

Stage 2: Delegation

To move past the first stage and begin effective distribution of work requires delegation.  Delegation is a process of assigning work to others and growing capacity for the company.

The critical first step in delegating is choosing who to delegate to.  We would not delegate driving a car to someone who has never been behind the wheel, no matter how enthusiastically they wanted the job.  Similarly, it would be poor judgement to delegate a major task or project to someone who is already significantly overworked and operating well beyond the expected norm.

Both of these situations illustrate key criteria that can be used to determine if a candidate for a delegation is suitable. Since delegation is a way to cascade work through an organization, the psuedo-word CASCade can help us remember what to consider:

  • Capability – does the person have the requisite skills and/or experience to undertake the task?
    • If not, does the organization have the tolerance for less-than-perfect execution of this task as a learning opportunity for the person?
  • Attitude – is the delegatee excited to take on the task or responsibility?
  • Support and Resources – what does the delegator and the organization need to provide in terms of support or resources to optimize the chances of success.  This could take the form of coaching/mentoring or something more concrete like money or supporting personnel, depending on the scope of the delegation.
  • Capacity – does the individual have the time and/or capacity to add this work to their plate?
    • If not, is there a current responsibility that should or could be removed from that individual?

With the help of this checklist the right delegatee can be selected.  The next step is then engaging the delegatee in a discussion about the assignment; what is the outcome required (and by when), what support is needed, what resources are available, what frequency of check-ins are required, etc.

Level 3: Empowerment

Simple delegation can only go so far.  Leaders who delegate work may still need to be involved and quite hands-on in managing various delegations.  The next stage is to move from delegation to empowerment.

In an empowered organization, work gets done and decisions are made with little or no involvement by the leader. For this to happen, an organization needs clarity of vision, purpose, roles and processes.

For leaders, empowerment of their people frees up time and energy to focus on the external environment, new ideas or the future, knowing with confidence that decisions and work is being done in an aligned way.

For employees, an empowered environment can be highly motivating.  In the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Dan Pink puts forward a model of motivation that suggests people are highly motivated where there is an opportunity for Purpose, Mastery and Autonomy in their work.  Empowerment delivers on the autonomy element.

Another great example of moving from delegation to empowerment is the account of the US Navy Submarine Sante Fe as described in the book Turn the Ship Around! by formal US Naval Commander and author David Marquet.  According to Marquet, “Leadership should mean giving control rather than taking control and creating leaders rather than forging followers”.

One of the tools Marquet employed as Captain of the Sante Fe was teaching his people to change their language around taking action.  For example, instead of asking permission to do something, the new language from subordinates was “I intend to….”.

“Captain, should we submerge?” (or even saying nothing and waiting for an order)

changed to:

“Captain, I intend to submerge to periscope depth”.

This seemingly trivial change in language drove a whole new mindset around empowerment on the Santa Fe.  For crew members, the “I intend to” language forced them to think through their recommendations for action, rather than just awaiting orders.  It unlocked a feeling of ownership, faster execution of commands, encouraged better direct communication between roles, and leveraged the experience and knowledge of veteran seamen.

Unleashing the Potential of the Organization

In this article we have considered three stages of work distribution in organizations:

  1. Bottleneck – where most critical actions and decisions are going through a few or one person.
  2. Delegation – where tasks, projects and decisions are cascaded through the organization but with careful oversight and direction by the delegators and leaders.
  3. Empowerment – where decisions and actions are being taken autonomously.

In reality, most organizations have pockets of all three stages taking place.  However, as leaders we should be assessing where we are now and what actions we can take to begin moving up the empowerment ladder.

What is your next “I intend to…” statement based on this article?

Article by Tim O’Connor