Delegation is like Making Coffee

CoffeeI received a stark lesson in delegation about a week after the birth of my son. Beforehand, his father and I had envisioned our house would be overflowing with family and friends bearing gifts and offers of help. Optimistically, we posted a list entitled “What can I do?” which included “Do a load of laundry! Wash a few dishes! Run to the store and pick up a package of diapers! Bring a coffee. Yes, with caffeine!”

Our house was indeed overflowing with family and friends. They brought gifts like engraved pewter thingies, framed sayings, and baby clothes so nice you didn’t want to put them anywhere near the peeing machine. They also offered to help . . . One even videotaped me while I was breastfeeding. Can you spell WTF?

Through it all, I tried to prove that I could still function effectively . . . The house had been vacuumed! We had ingredients on hand to suit everyone’s dietary preferences! Cheese sandwiches were being broiled! Crying baby was being fed!

My sister offered to make a pot of coffee. And then, as she dumped a pile of ground beans into our French press pot, I corrected her: “No, Deb, you have to measure six level scoops . . . ”

That would have been the last pot of coffee she ever made for me if I hadn’t suddenly realized my mistake. Maybe that’s why no one was doing our laundry – they knew I would complain when something shrunk (I’d done it before, and I will do it again). Or bringing diapers (what if they brought the wrong kind?) This is why they were bringing useless gewgaws and trying to participate in our family life with their video cameras. I couldn’t say it was the “wrong” pewter spoon or tell them they were using the wrong light. I’d been doing things independently for so long that I’d gotten this confused with leadership. I’d never learned one of the most important rules of delegation, which is:

If you want to delegate tasks, you have to accept the risk – or maybe even the certainty – that they won’t be done the way you would have done them.

But What If It’s Important To Do Things Right?

If you’re going to get a task done, you have three choices:

  1. Do it yourself. You know it will be done right . . . but you may miss the chance to do something else that is more important.
  2. Ask someone else to do it, and spend the time teaching him to do it right. (You may be spending more time teaching him to do it than you would have spent to do it yourself. This stops many people from delegating. However, if you teach someone to do something today, he’ll be able to do it for you tomorrow . . . correctly.
  3. Accept that it won’t be done “right” and maybe that’s okay.

Have I Learned My Lesson?

When you’re managing people or projects in a work setting, it’s important to understand that their efforts to help are very much like the gifts people bring. They want to do the right thing, and the trick is to encourage them to continue offering their gifts without criticizing their efforts in a damaging way. In other words, be gracious.

I believe I’m still working on this. Going forward, I resolve to drink more “wrong” coffee. But don’t you dare shrink my favorite pants.





2 thoughts on “Delegation is like Making Coffee

  1. This is awesome! And very true. I made the realization last week that the phrase “if you want something done right, do it yourself” can be modified to include “then teach someone else how to do it” at the end and that brings it successfully to delegation. I struggled with the last option of delegation you listed for years and was always frustrated with why nothing was getting done like how I would do it and it was because I didn’t want to give up the time to properly teach someone the way I wanted it done, applying to the workplace of course. It’s nice to hear of your journey going through this as well!

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