Precision Delegation – A guideline for leaders who find themselves in new roles


This article is dedicated to all of the people who have recently found themselves elected to new roles in their local governments. It is also something that might be useful to any number of people who are already in leadership but aren’t very effective in getting things done. Outside of time management (which is directly tied to delegation) there are very few things that can trip up a leader in the execution of their duties as much as delegation.

The article comes from my years as a submariner, business leader and business excellence teacher.

Precision Delegation

Delegation is defined as the assignment of any authority to another person (normally from a manager to a subordinate) to carry out specific activities. It is one of the core concepts of management leadership. However, the person who delegated the work remains accountable for the outcome of the delegated work. Delegation empowers a subordinate to make decisions, i.e. it is a shifting of decision-making authority from one organizational level to a lower one. Delegation, if properly done, is not fabrication. The opposite of effective delegation is micromanagement, where a manager provides too much input, direction, and review of delegated work. In general, delegation is good and can save money and time, help in building skills, and motivate people. On the other hand, poor delegation might cause frustration and confusion to all the involved parties.

Over the years, I have come to understand that there are levels of delegation. Based on my experience, I follow a pattern that I have captured as Precision Delegation. This definition transcends the textbook description and is applied in situations where the outcome is significant and the risks of failure are high.

Precision Delegation is not for the meek and timid.

For an organization to run smoothly, the team members must be fully aligned to support the mission and shared vision. This requires some up front work to vet the members of the team. The critical components required include the ability to rapidly understand the current needs based on a minimum amount of communication. A submarine operating at the edge of its safe operating envelope will be very unforgiving if any piece of information is lost or incorrect. Once a situation starts careening out of control, it’s often too late to do anything but react. Every level of the chain of command must be seamless in transmitting exactly the right information at exactly the right time.

None of this should be left to luck or the right circumstances.

Deciding who will hold the fire hose should almost never be decided when you are standing in front of a burning building. The time for establishing precision delegation should never be as a casualty is unfolding. This ongoing process requires a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities in any planned evolution. More than that, it extends to the many types of potential casualty situations. The submarine team accomplishes their readiness by non-stop practice of routine and non-routine evolutions. Through self-monitoring and drill team monitoring, the watch teams practice their craft with little room for deviation. Orders for depth and speed changes are issued and repeated with as few words as possible. But the execution is managed by the skilled operators who have practiced many times in training simulations.

Scoping: Who will execute must be a predetermined decision.

Early on, the leader (with their team) must examine all of the potential scenarios that will be included in the scope. Whether it is a routine evolution or one which emerges, a mapping strategy would include identifying all of the possible elements and determining which staff members are best prepared to take on a role in filling in the gaps. Some team members are very good in group setting and some are talented with one on one interactions. Some like to solve problems on the fly and some are more introspective. People have varying levels of experience and abilities. A great plan will include an alignment between the potential scenarios and the people who have the right strengths to counter the effects of the situation.

Even if you think you have the right person, remember that life is evolutionary and so are the problems we face. Part of the success of precision delegation is the amount of time spent developing the knowledge and skills that will automatically be used when the situation arises. There is no time for the operators to question the validity of an order since they may not have the big picture of what else is going on around them. They still have the ability to sense a malfunction or rapid change in what was expected from their actions but ultimately, they are trained to follow the path of the precision delegation issued.

Delegation is not micromanagement.

If you find that you are correcting your subordinates on every decision, you are not delegating at all. They will quickly see through the subterfuge and become disillusioned. In some cases, they will just leave. All of the training you have done and all of the efforts in developing them is gone. In many cases, what you have really lost is your own precious time and it will never be regained. That doesn’t mean you do not measure effectiveness. You must still have a level of confidence that the assignments are being carried out and a good feedback mechanism should be part of any delegation plan. But feedback should not consistently involved correction. Clarify the expectations and adjust as needed. Remember this: the minute you take back all of the elements of the task, your delegation is over.

You never surrender leadership or responsibility.

Delegation is a way to share the tasks associated with any leadership role. But the people who are doing the task must remember that your style, your preferences and your knowledge must be respected in the execution of those tasks. If conflict is constantly arising because of a gap in their understanding of your needs as the leader, consider wisely where adjustments need to be made. No one is perfect. But you were chosen to be in the position you are in. Whether it’s by a company, an organization, the voters, or whoever, you were selected for the unique characteristics that make you who you are as a leader. Your team should understand that and make their own adjustments. Or they should go someplace else and serve. It’s not personal. It’s just a reality. Just like you can never really escape the leadership role, you never escape the consequences of the leadership role. Unless the staff member does something particularly egregious, they rarely get blamed when things go horribly wrong.

The single best source of learning I have read in my many years in leadership comes from the Harvard Press. The article was called “Management time… Who’s go the monkey?”

I am including the excerpts from another article which tells the story well:


Are you working harder and longer than the people who report to you? If you said yes, this article is for you because you may be experiencing the frustrations of reverse delegation. This is what Oncken and Wass popularized as the “monkey on the back” analogy in their famous Harvard Business Review classic, “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey.” In the analogy, “monkey” refers to the responsibility for performance and the initiative to act. An example will best illustrate what this is all about. Let’s say you are walking through your organization, and one of your direct reports, Bill Good says to you, “Boss we’ve got a problem. The order for the special project did not come in.” You discuss it further, but because it can’t be immediately solved you say, “Thanks, Bill, for letting me know. This is very important to me, so I’ll look into it when I get back to my office.”

Let’s take a look at what just happened. When the two of you met, the “monkey” was on Bill’s back. Where is it now? That’s right, it’s on yours. If you continue your rounds through your entire operation, you will probably pick up a bunch of other monkeys before you return to your office. Now, here is an important question: Who works for whom? That’s right, you are working for the Bill. After all, you accepted the responsibility for solving his problem; plus, like a good “subordinate,” you even promised to give him a progress report.

Back in your office you have a meeting with your assistant, whom you had asked to evaluate your production equipment and to come up with a recommendation for new equipment purchases. You sit down with Mrs. Productive, and she gives you a report of all that she has done to get the information together. Among other things, she tells you that the trip to the annual equipment meeting in Chicago was very informative and she got a lot of good information from it. While you are talking with Mrs. Productive, Bill pokes his head in the door and asks whether you have had chance to figure out a solution to “our” problem. (As you well know, that is called supervision.) After the interruption, Mrs. Productive concludes by saying that because of the trip-a perk paid out of your budget, for a trip to a city you would liked to have visited-“I got most of what you wanted, but because I got so far behind, I just haven’t had time to sort it all out.” With this she puts a four-inch thick folder on your desk. You don’t know what to say, but you want to be a sensitive boss. So, after swallowing a couple of times, you say, “Thanks, I appreciate all you’ve done. Let me look at what we’ve got so far.” OOPS, another monkey just made a move. To make matters worse, upon leaving your office, Mrs. Productive says, “Thanks, boss. If you have any questions, let me know.”

Now, if Mrs. Productive is a dedicated employee, in a couple of days she’ll be asking you how you are coming along with the new equipment project. I won’t even ask who is working for whom at this point. But you haven’t learned your lesson yet. When you stop by the purchasing office, the supervisor, Mr. Ontime, says, “Boss, we’re having difficulties with the new computerized perpetual inventory system.” Because you are on your way to an important meeting, you ask him to e-mail you a memo detailing the problems. A couple of days later you find the memo in your e-mail box and are impressed with how dedicated Mr. Ontime is. Are you watching the monkey? Has it made the leap onto your back yet? You skim the memo, but just don’t have the time to dedicate to it because the problem is much more complicated than you thought. The next day, Mr. Ontime gives you a call to find out how you are coming along. You feel badly because you don’t have an answer yet, but you’ve been delayed because you have all these other monkeys to carry around. Of course, you still have all of your own responsibilities to take care of, plus you’ve got to keep your boss happy. If you don’t do so, you might as well start looking for a new job. In the meantime, Mr. Ontime is wondering what in the world you do anyway and is getting frustrated because he has to wait for you-and you sure appear to be taking your sweet time. Of course, the story probably doesn’t end here if you have more than three people reporting to you. But let’s stop because by now I hope you are getting a clear image of yourself being buried by your team members’ monkeys. As a result, you work incredibly long hours, become totally frustrated, are unable to sleep, increase your use of antacids, neglect your family . . . do I have to go on, or do you get the picture? (Is this making you uncomfortable because it describes your current situation?) At the same time, the people who are working for you have no problem getting home on time and are sleeping soundly. Occasionally, they check to see what progress you are making. The only problem is that they are not very productive, because they have to wait while you take your “sweet time” getting your act together.


So what to do about all those monkeys on your back? Here are some suggestions:

  • Clarify that there is no such thing as “we” have a problem. The problem is almost always the employee’s. It is theirs to solve; that’s what they are getting paid for.
  • Insist on complete work. If it is not complete, give it back.
  • Clearly define who will make the next move. In virtually all cases it should be the team member; otherwise the problem will become yours.
  • Attain a mutual and clear understanding about the level of initiative you want your team member to exercise. These levels, from lowest to highest, are:
    • Wait until you are told.
    • Ask what I want you to do.
    • Make a recommendation, then act.
    • Act on your own, but let me know what you have done.
    • Act on your own and give me feedback during regular meeting times.
    • Operate at the highest level of initiative to the maximum extent possible. Seldom use level 1 or 2, because it will result in you collecting lots of monkeys.
  • Avoid relying on written communication when dealing with problems. Once a problem is in your in-box-electronic or otherwise-you have no choice but to adopt and feed the monkey because the next move will always be yours.


Now that you are familiar with “monkey business,” let’s go back to our hypothetical examples. In the first example you should ask Mr. Good what he plans to do about his problem. If he comes up dry-which he will if you have been solving all his problems in the past-you might suggest that he consult someone else on his team who has dealt with a similar problem in the past or suggest several ways for him to solve the problem. You conclude your discussion by expressing confidence in Bill and ask him to let you know by a specific time how he handled it. In our second example, you tell Mrs. Productive that she is to complete the partially finished report by no later than a specified time and date. Review your expectations with her again by firmly letting her know that you do not accept incomplete work. You should take the opportunity to answer questions, but also make it very clear that your time, as well as hers, is too valuable to spend on half-finished projects. The answer to the third problem depends on what you know about Mr. Ontime. If in the past he has been able to independently solve problems, you might tell him to fix the problem with the inventory system and be prepared to make a report at the weekly management team meeting. If not, you should ask him to evaluate the problem and come up with three possible solutions for consideration at the next management team meeting.

This is the beginning of our understanding of Precision Delegation. Not knowing how, when, why or who to delegate to is often at the root cause of leadership failures. You must clearly define the scope including the 5 W’s and 1 H (who, what, when where, why and how) at the very beginning of your journey. Then adapt and modify as the situation changes. You cannot delegate your ultimate responsibility but you can make your world much easier to manage if you have a plan.

Mister Mac


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