How to Delegate

By Ichak Kalderon Adizes, PhD.

It is nothing new when I say that there is duality in everything. We would not know what being skinny is if we did not define what being fat is. There will be nothing to exhale unless we inhale. Eastern religions and philosophy call this duality Ying and Yang.

This duality also applies to decision making, in business and personal life.

In my lectures, I have claimed that you do not know what you know until you know what you don’t know. If someone tells you what he knows about a subject, ask him what he does not know about that subject. That will tell you how much this person really knows. If he or she claims to know it all, he or she is full of hot air and you should carefully examine what they claim to know.

To finalize any decision that involves change you must answer the four imperatives of decision making: What to do, how to do it, when it has to be done, and who should do it.

Deciding what to do without deciding how and when it should be done, or who specifically should do it, can produce a disaster. In military affairs, for example, when a commander orders a unit to clear a village of an enemy contingent (the what) but does not spell out the how, in this case the values, which should govern such activity, could allow for hundreds of civilians to be killed.

If you do not spell out “when” something needs to be done, once the task is actually completed it may be too late for it to be effective. Additionally, without spelling out exactly “who” is responsible for getting it done might mean your decision never gets implemented because everyone expects someone else to do it.

Still, deciding what to do (and when and how and by whom) is not enough. You have to also tell people what not to do, how not to do, when not to do and who should not do it.

The Israeli government decided on an incursion into Lebanon in 1982 to eliminate Palestinian cross-border shootings. Ariel Sharon, who was the Minister of Defense at the time, advanced all the way to Beirut. If he had not been stopped, he would have gone all the way to the border with Turkey. That was not the intent of the cabinet decision, and it had disastrous repercussions.

Deciding how to do something needs its accompanying duality, how not to do something. Deciding when requires also deciding when not to accomplish something; and deciding who the right person to carry out the decision is also requires deciding who is not the right person.

To define what, how, when, and who is relatively easier to decide than to decide the negative ones.

Is not easy to decide what not, how not, when not, and who is the wrong person to do something , because what we know is by definition limited while what we don’t know is limitless.

Determining what not to do, how not to do anything, when the timing is not right and who is not the right person requires experience. Someone experienced with poor decisions, and thus learned what, how and when not to do things; or one whose wisdom has accumulated over time by watching others fail. (Intelligent people know how to solve a problem. Wise people know how not to get into the problem in the first place.)

What this discussion means is that any time you delegate any decision, even when you are careful to specify all four imperatives, you still need to supervise and monitor the execution of the decision, because no one can imagine what the person you delegated to might do in overdoing the what, or violating the how, or passing time limits, or delegating further to someone you consider to be inappropriate.

The negatives- what not to, how not to, etc.-you do not need to determine by monitoring execution and pointing out mistakes as they are made. (That might be the second prize.) You can, and should, determine the negatives through “simulation”: Tell a person what to do. Ask him how he intends to do it. You might discover in the simulation that he will be making a mistake. Correct it in time. Ask if he is sure he can carry it out in the time limit you specified. If not, ask when he can complete it for sure. You might find out that the appropriate timeliness of the decision is being violated.

Delegation is not a linear process or a one-way street. It is an interactive process. As you correct the person you delegated to, you are teaching him or her, and he or she is gaining experience. In addition, the decision you made will be carried out as you decided.

By asking questions intelligently you might be developing the wisdom of your subordinate.

The duality of this process has repercussions in personal life, too. For example, you tell people what not to eat in order to be healthy. Vegetarians, for instance, will not eat meat and some people will tell everyone who cares to listen how proud they are because they had the discipline NOT to eat something. But what makes you sick or overweight is not only what you do not eat; it is what you DO eat. For instance, although they eat no flesh, many vegetarians become overweight because they eat too much cheese and oil.

You have to watch what you eat and what you do not eat.

Everything comes in pairs. Not only the sexes.