Jacob Kaplan-Moss


Briefing a Delegate

Some managers think delegation is easy: you just ask someone on your team to go do a thing, then kick back with your feet on the desk until it’s done. Not true: delegating that way is a recipe for failure. To delegate effectively, you need to set up your delegate for success. This means explaining the work and desired outcomes, providing context, and teaching your delegate any skills they’ll need to be successful.

This post, the fifth part of my delegation series, covers that process (if you haven’t read the previous posts in the series you might want to go back and do so; this post builds on concepts from previous parts). Here are the steps I suggest you take when delegating a task:

1. Ask, don’t tell

Delegation isn’t just task direction; it’s an opportunity for someone to step up. If you have to use your role power to get someone to do a task, it’s not delegation. If the person you’re asking doesn’t see this as an opportunity, you want them to say no1. This might sound something like this: “I’d like to you meet with Client X next week instead of me; are you open to that?”

Explain why you’re asking them, in particular, e.g. something like: “I think you’re the best person on our team to discuss Project Y with them”, or “I know you’ve been wanting to have more time working directly with clients, so here’s an opportunity to do that”, or “our CTO will also be there, and spending more time working directly with them will help that promotion case we’re making”.

2. Brief

If they say “yes” (or “tell me more”), now it’s time for a briefing.

Perhaps the most common mistake managers make around delegation is failing to brief. The task you’re about to delegate is probably one you’re familiar with. You’ve done it a few times, have some ideas about how to proceed, and have a level of context that your report doesn’t. Failing to pass all this down to your delegate sets them up for failure.

A good delegation briefing should cover:

  • Describing the task and what success looks like. Remember, you want to delegate outcomes, not methods, so this part should focus on results. That said, if you have a specific way to approach the problem that you think is more likely to be successful, don’t hold back. I usually say something like, “the details are totally up to you, but if I were doing this I would …”.

  • Explain who the other people involved in the task are, and what everyone’s roles should be. You can skip this part if your delegate knows all the players, but if they’ll be interacting with someone they don’t know very well, a few words about who each person is and tips on working with them can be very welcome.

  • Assign deliverables: if there are any tangible outputs required – reports, meeting notes, tickets entered or updated, etc. – make sure to be specific about what they are and where they need to go.

    At a minimum, it’s probably a good idea to ask the delegate to report back to you (by email, Slack, in a weekly 1:1, etc.) on the outcome. This lets you put the task out of your mind until they report back. It also helps make sure there’s some sort of accountability, which is useful the first few times you delegate to someone.

  • Outline to what degree you’re delegating decision-making power. When you delegate, you’re delegating your authority to some degree as well; it’s silly to ask someone to own a task that requires some decisions not give them the power to make that decision. But, there might be areas where you can’t fully delegate. So map this out. Do they have full authority to speak and make decisions on your behalf? Are there areas where they need to not commit and ask you first? Are there things they absolutely should not agree to?

After that, ask what else they need to make them comfortable and confident. Answer questions, provide additional training material, etc.

3. Give feedback and debrief

If you notice anything as the task is progressing, and/or after the task is done, be sure to give feedback. You’re probably asking your delegate to step somewhat outside their comfort zone, so they’re especially prone to making mistakes they don’t recognize. And as usual, remember to include positive feedback! If things go perfectly, say so.

For complex work, or for tasks that might be repeated many times, it can be useful to have a formal debrief. Have them talk you through how things went, what issues came up, what went well, and what to do differently next time. You don’t need to debrief every time you delegate, but when you can it’s helpful.

This is the penultimate part in my delegation series; I’ve now covered all the theory and tactics around delegation I was hoping to cover. With that laid out, the next and final post will show how this all works in practice, by walking through a specific example. See you then.

  1. If “no” isn’t an option – if you do need them to perform this task, then don’t ask. That’s not delegation. It’s task assignment, but assigning tasks is well within your scope of responsibility as a manager. Just don’t make it sound like a question if it’s not! Asking questions where there’s only one acceptable answer is passive-aggressive bullshit. Sometimes managers do need to just give an order. If that’s the case, own it; don’t pretend you’re asking. ↩︎