Mastering Delegation, The Fire Hose of Productivity

Fire HoseSadly, I did not coin the phrase “drinking from the fire hose” – that is, experiencing a pace of productivity so exhilarating and empowering yet potentially overwhelming unless you know how to control it.  Not surprisingly, though, I have a story about delegation that was both exhilarating and involved a fire hose.

One of the more colorful jobs I recall from working myself through school was with a Fortune 100 manufacturer of construction equipment.  There, I was assigned to Cecille, the head of security, and a former State Trooper from Georgia (regular readers may notice a theme in my life).  After some good natured banter, Cecille gave me my first task.  “I want you to go around, find every fire hydrant, polish it, and then flush it out to get any rust out of the line.  Just remove the big cap and open the valve for a minute or two.  You think you can handle that?”

Not wanting to be judged incapable of turning on a valve, I replied, “Yep.”

“Good.  Here are the keys to the fire truck.  Now git.”  I always looked forward to being told to “git.”

I set off in the fire truck around the 440 acres of the plant in search of hydrants to polish and flush.  At first, things went well.  And then came the hydrant in the gravel parking lot.  Even it, too, seemed to be going fine as the water sprayed forth, casting mist and rainbows into the wind.  And then I shut off the water valve to discover to my horror that I had just used water pressure to dig a hole four feet wide, 20 feet long, and a foot and a half deep in the gravel all in two minutes or less.  That hole took the rest of the day to refill.

“Do you know what a fire truck comes equipped with?” Cecille asked, as calm as ever when I was called into his office.

“Is it a fire hose?”

Yes!” he said. “And do you know what fire hoses are good for?”

“Is it… directing all the force of the water to go where I want it without doing bad things along the way? Like ripping up your parking lot?”

YES! Now git!”

Delegation done well is a lot like that fire hose. It unleashes an amazing amount of power, yet keeps it controlled, directed, and very much aligned to the goal.  Effective delegation is the art of combining simple techniques with targeted learning styles, resulting in rapid improvements in performance, profitability, and owner satisfaction.

When Delegation Goes Wrong

Most often, delegation “goes wrong” by simply never happening. Tasks are withheld, and the would-be manager becomes a choke point in the organization, increasingly and ironically frustrated with the useless of his or her staff.  The most common reasons I hear are, “It’ll take too long to explain,” “I want it done right,” and, “Nobody can do it as well as me.”  Sound familiar?

I’m not going to argue against the truth that delegation takes time.  At first. It’s a skill of a grown-up professional manager, and when practiced, it becomes easier and more efficient.  Until then, struggle through feeling like an adolescent manager but stick with it: it’s an investment not only in yourself but in the proper functioning of your organization and your future leadership, your employees.

Then again, there are cases like the example above with Cecille where delegation happened but was haphazard at best.  Preventing these are the focus of the remainder of this article.

Delegate Like a Pro

Take stock of my seven points of delegation mastery.  Which are you a pro at and where could you use a little help?

1.         Ensure adequate skills. Unfortunately, when Cecille turned the fire hydrant task over to me, there was absolutely nothing in my job history that qualified me to drive fire trucks or perform the task at hand.  Invest the time to teach the required skills.  Expand the capabilities of your staff.

2.         Establish clear goals and expectations. How clear are the goals you set, really?  Would you understand them?  Is there room for confusion?  The more measurable your goal can be made, the more well defined the delegation task becomes.

3.         Communicate the deadline. Often, deadlines don’t get communicated because the delegator thinks they’ve presented the project with plenty of lead time.  So what happens when higher priorities crop up?  You get bumped.  Always communicate when you need results.

4.         Communicate the importance. Also communicate why. Since you’re not the only priority in life, this establishes the priority level of your project against everything else happening now or in the future.

5.         Communicate restraints and boundaries. Unless you have an unlimited budget, access to people, no restrictions on material usage, etc., now would be a good time to make your needs known.

6.         Establish accountability dates. Also known as milestones.  Success is absolutely expected and required, and that should be communicated in advance.  The purpose of these dates is to check status according to plan, celebrate success, and correct action well before the end of the project.  This is key to overcoming one of the key objections against delegation: that projects won’t get done, or won’t get done properly.

7.         Back away. Don’t micromanage.  Offer encouragement and support as needed.  Check in on the scheduled dates.  Otherwise, empower and back away.

Blending Styles

Sadly, not everyone is just like you. Some people learn differently, and if you try to teach or delegate to them in a fashion that doesn’t work for them, it may go nowhere.

We call these Learning Styles and there are three easy types to remember.  Some people learn best by telling them what to do and explaining the parts aloud.  For others, showing them is more effective as they need to see it to get it.  Last but not least, for others, doing it and trying it out for themselves under your supervision is the first time it will really sink in.  Just imagine how frustrating it can be for everyone if the teaching style and learning styles don’t match.

Interestingly, one of the most common offenders I see are people who are visual trying to tell other visual people how to do something rather than showing them.  Odd.

Wrapping Up

As with most things in life, the first key to success with delegation is to realize it is in fact necessary and to make a commitment to practice it.  It really is a skill that must be practiced and perfected.  Keep the key steps in mind and blend learning styles, and you too will unleash now levels of well-controlled power in your organization.


Dustin Walling is Principal of Dustin Walling Associates, a Seattle-based management consulting firm providing strategy and operational consulting.  For article topics, questions, or comments, Dustin can be reached at http://www.DustinWalling.com.

A Micromanager’s Guide to Trust, Teamwork, and Communication

TeamworkThe unavoidable truth is micromanagement makes us feel better and that’s why we do it.  Like the nicotine in a cigarette, it calms the nervous manager, providing information and visibility into situations where it would otherwise be lacking.  We gain our “hit” of easy information, our twitching eases, and we can move on to something else for a while.

The problem is that just like the nicotine in cigarettes comes laden with a cadre of things that will kill you, micromanagement too carries a host of cancer-causing effects that poison an organization and wreak havoc in the minds of even dedicated workers.  Likewise, such an intense hands-on approach is no way to scale an organization, fails to develop new leadership, and traps existing managers in a relentless daily grind.  Most managers realize this – even new ones – and don’t break their habits simply out of lack of knowledge, lack of ideas, or… well… habit.

The real fact of the matter is that micromanagement is usually a reaction to a problem that, rather than addressing and eliminating the problem directly, serves as a convenient power play to side-step the issue all together.  But more effective solutions are available for gaining visibility, providing accountability, and taking issues head-on.

On-Board Terrorists
What is it that kicks off a good round of micromanaging, anyway?  For some it literally may be as simple as the need for information without the skill to gain it in any other way.  For others, a different issue may be at work.

Do you have information terrorists in your organization?  You know the kind.  People that won’t let go of information, but instead guard it close?  What are the impacts of this behavior to their co-workers, their team, and the company at large when they refuse to communicate?  What is the impact on trust in the group around them, or the spirit of teamwork?  Sometimes micromanagement can be a coping mechanism for poor employee behavior.  But rather than simply cope, it’s better to address the root issue.

One for All
Is it ever okay for an employee to declare their own personal little fiefdom?   Do “we the people” have the right to carve off a corner of the company from the whole, taking vital company data and information with?  And yet when on-board terrorists go to work, this is exactly what happens.

Any sense of teamwork is lost.  It is, in fact, the company’s data, the company’s information, the company’s sales leads, etc., and we are charged with creating, working, and furthering them.  As soon as the “pronoun problem” becomes internalized and people begin to believe in terms of “my” instead of “our,” teamwork is a concept instead of reality.

Bring it Together
What systems of accountability are in place in your organization?  All I have to do in order to generate a roll of the eyes with a client is to point out they don’t trust their employees and tell them they need to get past it.  But if you think “get past it” means “blind trust” you’re dead wrong.

I don’t advocate blind trust for the same reason I’m not a big fan of trust falls and quite a few other “team building” exercises.  Want to build a team?  Accomplish something – preferably something challenging.

Good systems of accountability feature at least three things.  First, they clearly define goals and personal responsibilities.  Second, they create a regular, predictable, controlled forum in which status on responsibilities is reported and progress towards goals is made clear.  Third and finally, they create an environment where the expectation within the group is that success is expected from all.

In this environment, trust is built and reinforced through success.  Teamwork is an integral component as the collective problem solves toward common goals.  Communication simply happens because it is the standard operating procedure.  Whereas the micromanager may cycle between extremes of over-communication and hands-off indifference in the name of “staying informed,” the accountable manager produces better results through better information, more often.

And a Caveat
Let’s be fair.  If an employee is new to a role or a set of skills, then hands-on, close-contact management may be appropriate, particularly if the job is technical.  This isn’t called micromanagement, though.  It’s called training and it’s critical for success.

Wrapping Up
We can micromanage our way around the on-board anti-communication terrorists… only to face them another day.  We can side-step issues of teamwork in the same way, and even get around lack of trust in a team, all while strong-arming the information needed.

But a better alternative is to address the fundamental issues directly and not accept lack of trust, teamwork, or communication as standard operating procedure.  The fundamental step is to take a different approach of installing systems of accountability that help to encourage and reinforce trust, teamwork, and communication.  The net effect is improved information flow, increased productivity, and improved profitability.


Dustin Walling is Principal of Dustin Walling Associates, a Seattle-based management consulting firm providing strategy and operational consulting to small and medium businesses.  For article topics, questions, or comments, Dustin can be reached at http://www.DustinWalling.com.