Delegation – My Way or the Highway!

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Some months ago I attended a meeting designed to bring business men and women and potential business coaches together. Each of us could talk about areas where we thought we might need guidance. One man, who’s successfully run his own business for more than 15 years, bewailed the fact that he could never find ‘good people’. He was still searching for a successor, someone who might, one day, run the business on his behalf, and to whom, in the meantime, as he trained him up, he could delegate important day-to-day decisions.

Of course he was kidding himself, as many of us could see. The problem, and I could tell that  everyone was thinking it, was that he couldn’t let go. He couldn’t delegate.

‘They never work out,’ he said. ‘Either they leave or I end up firing them. What is it about this country?’

To my mind Czechia (as we’re now supposed to call the Czech Republic) isn’t exceptional. It’s a small country, but there are plenty of pragmatic young men and women ready to learn and lead.

‘Might it be something to do with you?’ I asked, as tactfully as I could. ‘Are you sure you’re delegating properly? It mightn’t actually be a recruitment issue, you know. It could be a management issue.’

I don’t think he liked the drift of my question. But that, too, was symptomatic of the issue. And his wasn’t the only big ego in the room. One by one, everyone moaned about something or other, but no one was really interested in anyone else’s opinion.

myway

Delegation isn’t easy, especially if you run your own business and you’ve got used to having things your way and doing things your way. You come to believe, like an absolute monarch, in the divine rightness of the entrepreneur. Your way is the only way. No one else can possibly get it right.

But if you can’t delegate then your business won’t grow. And you won’t ever be able to sell it, because it won’t work without you. You’re likely to be its sole source of value if you can’t assemble a competent and independent management team around you. It’s no good saying that you can’t find the right people, or that the right people won’t stay. Rather, you’ve got to find the right way of delegating so that your company acquires a life that isn’t dependent on you, and attracts staff who are happy to stay.

The first mistake we all make with delegation is to believe that when we delegate we’re simply doing things by proxy. We think we can double our capacity simply by making another person an extension of ourselves. We want a clone, programmed with the knowledge we have, to react in the ways we react.

This is quite impossible, of course. No one is like us. In fact, no one is like anyone. And we’re foolish to think it’s fun to be a clone. We micro manage our staff from a distance castigating them for not doing things exactly the way we would do them. They’re not even ‘learning from their mistakes’ because nothing they do is really them. No wonder they hesitate to make decisions and call us for our advice about the most trivial things, every hour of every day, and exasperate us further. In the end we find we haven’t really doubled our capacity. Our protégées usually fail to meet our expectations, or we fail to meet theirs as employers. We fire them or they leave.

After we’ve made too many expensive mistakes of this kind, we try to delegate in a slightly different way. We stop the micro management and we pretend that we’ve delegated full decision-making responsibility and that we won’t interfere in the day-to-day.

‘Don’t call me,’ we say. ‘You’ll know what to do. Trust your own judgement. And if you make mistakes, you’ll learn from them.’

Only, of course, we don’t actually trust their judgement and we’re usually working with a very personal (our own) definition of what constitutes a mistake.

I once tried this form of delegation during the early years of my company (LLP Group), leaving for two weeks’ holiday in Zimbabwe, out of sight, beyond telephone contact, with the lions, the giraffes and the elephants, on safari. And when I came home I made a long list of everything that my colleagues had done ‘wrong’.

Real delegation goes further than the training of clones. It goes beyond the apparent granting of full ‘responsibility’ to managers if what we actually want is that they make exactly the decisions that we would make. Real delegation means more than ‘letting people learn from their mistakes’. Rather, it’s a matter of accepting that if people do things differently from us, that doesn’t mean they’re making mistakes. Their ideas may be better ideas than ours, their methods may be more efficient, more pragmatic. They may know more than we do.

If we want our businesses to grow, we’re bound to need specialist help from people who know more about some things than we do. We must learn to do the unthinkable and defer to someone else’s expertise. Collectively we achieve more that way. Ten ideas are better than one idea as long as a quick consensus can be formed and we can make a clear decision, whether personal or collective.

Real delegation grants others the responsibility to do things differently from us. If we can accept that, we’ll find plenty of ‘good people’ wherever we’re running our business – even in Czechia. I’ve found plenty of very good people.

Explanation, Understanding and Excuse

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I listened on Saturday morning to BBC Radio 4’s phone-in programme, Any Answers, which was dominated by the horrifying events in Paris on Friday evening. Amongst the dozen or so who called in to air their views there were the usual cranks, including a man advocating the incarceration of the families of terrorists, and suspected terrorists, in concentration camps, but the majority of the despair was liberal and thoughtful.

jesuisparis

A British man called from Paris first to commiserate, and then to make the point that Paris is a much less contentedly multiracial city than London. Its North African Muslims, particularly, feel marginalised and excluded, and large numbers live separately in what amount to suburban ghettos. They have fewer opportunities, and are often subject to open discrimination. Many are angry, resentful, frustrated, and, as a consequence, they may be prey to religious radicalisation. He made these points reasonably, and was equally as angry about Friday’s atrocities and as sorrowful as any of the other callers. He mentioned that he is of mixed race himself, and was always more conscious of this in Paris than in the UK.

The caller who followed him was indignant, suggesting that his predecessor had been ‘excusing’ terrorism by attempting to explain it. This was before the identity of any of the killers was known (at least one, it now seems, was a radicalised French Muslim), and before IS claimed responsibility.

I remember many years ago the outrage that followed a remark made by Cherie Blair, wife of Britain’s former Prime Minister. She let slip that she ‘understood’ the frustration of the Palestinians who carried out attacks against Israel. She was forced to retract and apologise, though she never meant to excuse Palestinian terrorism.

But to attempt to understand and to explain is not to excuse. Understanding is essential if there is to be solution and prevention. Of course nothing can excuse the cold-blooded killing of non-combatant civilians going about their everyday lives in the streets, cafes, stadiums and concert halls of Paris, except perhaps insanity (and perhaps insanity doesn’t excuse, even if it negates legal responsibility). Whatever our background, unless we are certifiably insane, we choose what we do and are responsible for our actions. Just as we do not discount the merit of courage if a brave man or woman has been lucky in his or her family and education, so we do not discount evil if it’s perpetrated by the marginalised, the unlucky, the poor.

After all, if explanation were a form of excuse, then we could all blame our actions on the interactions of our cerebral synapses, which we don’t control at the cellular level. As conscious, sane, adequately intelligent, adult human beings we are responsible for what we do however we are formed.

But nevertheless it would be stupid to pretend that policy doesn’t affect the conditions in which wrong choices are made. Following the riots of Britain in 1981 when the disaffected and recession-hit communities of Brixton and other inner cities flung Molotov cocktails at the police, the Government commissioned a public inquiry which found evidence of racism in police behaviour towards the black community. Legislation and a massive programme of investment followed, despite Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to accept communal disadvantage as any kind of explanation.

It would be stupid, also, to suppose that ‘Western’ policy in the Middle East hasn’t had a causal influence on what’s happening now, though it isn’t at all obvious what anyone should do next. Poverty and contempt breed violence.

Explanation and understanding are essential, alongside emotion. Concentration camps, bombing, and walls, solve nothing in the long term. But, even so, nothing excuses individual acts of terror and murder. I am sorry for all those affected by Friday’s events in Paris. What must we do to prevent further tragedies?

Even if Paris doesn’t always live up to the high ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, they are strikingly less prevalent in the Middle East, from where most of today’s terrorism comes. Whether that is because of, or despite, the West’s century or more or meddling, is a larger topic. One way or another there are precious few benign regimes in the region, and even fewer that are liberally democratic. Everyone seems to know that the solution lies there, but no one knows what it is.

The Art of Consulting – Judgement

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If it didn’t sound bossy I would have adopted a strapline such as ‘We tell our customers what to do’ for LLP Group. It reflects our inescapable responsibility as consultants, our duty to advise. When we’ve collated the evidence, evaluated the objectives, determined the priorities and analysed the constraints, we must make a judgement as to the best course for our client.

As I wrote in my first post on The Art of Consulting:

A consultant uses his knowledge, experience, intelligence and imagination to investigate, understand, and advise on the resolution of problems brought to him by a client.

judgement

The art of good judgement is probably the most difficult we must acquire. It certainly isn’t acquired in the classroom, but rather through years of experience, and, sad to say, through our mistakes as well as through our successes.

As young consultants we’re usually too obsessed by theory or by technology, too willing to take a risk on unproven solutions, and we overestimate the capabilities of our clients and their eagerness to embrace new ideas.

As we age we get better at balancing perfection and pragmatism, at aiming for the achievable rather than the ideal, and in understanding the limitations of our clients and ourselves.

A junior consultant can be trusted to:

  • —Solve a technical problem
  • —Provide important research

An intermediate consultant can be trusted to:

  • —Determine what a client wants or needs
  • —Devise the most expedient solution
  • —Divine or determine priorities
  • —Perceive dependencies
  • —Calculate the risks
  • —Estimate effort
  • ——Judge whether the client is right or wrong

A mature consultant can:

  • —Judge what is really in the client’s best interests
  • —Advise on what is practically achievable
  • —Decide whether it is in the consultants’ interest to deliver the project
  • —Determine if a client is ready for the solution
  • —Determine if the consultants can do a good enough job
  • —Motivate the client and the consultants involved

When we advise, our judgements must be:

  • —Reasoned
  • —Discussed
  • —Documented

And, like it or hate it, with judgement comes responsibility, and often, indeed, legal liability (whether limited to a large number or unlimited). This is why consultants often obtain professional indemnity insurance as protection, and this is why we reserve the right to refuse, to say no, to withdraw in some circumstances, if our advice is ignored.

—It’s important we remember that a consultant is responsible for his or her advice in the circumstances. We cannot take responsibility for issues over which we have no control.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we should always insist that our advice be followed to the letter. We must often make compromises. After all, we are sometimes wrong in some particulars.

But if we feel that an important aspect of our advice is ignored in a way that we cannot mitigate, then, if we do continue to work with our client, we must document our misgivings and advise our client on how we believe the outcome will be affected.

We must also always be willing to admit that we are wrong or have made mistakes. Even our clients might admit that it is human to err. Admitting mistakes as early as possible, however awkward, reduces the risk of failure, and on occasion, might even earn you some respect.

I remember many occasions in my work as an IT consultant where things went wrong because I made a mistake (it is actually quite impossible to get complex business systems to work perfectly the first time). I’ve learned to avoid being defensive. It’s always better to say, ‘Sorry, I made a mistake.’ In most circumstances clients accept that this is inevitable and that they, too, are not immune to error. In most cases they are sympathetic, forgiving and supportive.

On the other hand, if you are evasive and concealing, trust might be forever lost. —We can also avoid mistakes by admitting our limitations. Our clients must know what we know and what we don’t know. —If you’re not sure of something – say so, and say why. Never lie – you’ll be caught out sooner or later – and don’t hide something that you think might hurt you later.

But, even so, remember you’re always, at least partly, a salesperson. —Make the best of the circumstances you’re in. See the glass as half full, not half empty and don’t advertise problems if you can solve them quietly. We also have a responsibility to put the best gloss on things that we can.

See also:

The Art of Consulting

The Art of Consulting – What’s the Role of the Consultant?

The Art of Consulting – Impartial, Honest and Independent

The Art of Consulting – The Essential Skills

The Art of Consulting – Listening

The Art of Consulting – What’s a Good Question?

The Art of Consulting – Representation and Analysis

The Art of Consulting – Writing Simply

The Art of Consulting – Designing (Completeness & Simplicity)

The Art of Consulting – Designing (Pragmatism)

The Art of Consulting – Designing (Affordability, Flexibility, Maintainability, Elegance)

The Perils of Outsourcing

We live in an outsourcing and outsourced world. We’re sometimes victim, sometimes perpetrator. Wherever we are or whatever we do, whether in a hotel, or a hospital, even if we’re languishing at home in need of social care, we’re likely to be served by a cluster of different companies, very often without knowing it.

It’s a compelling idea if you’re running a business. Outsource ‘non-core functions’ to companies who are experts in these areas to drive down cost by putting your contract out to tender. Never mind that these companies pay only the minimum wage or hold their employees to zero-hour contracts. Not your concern. Who employs office cleaners directly nowadays? Almost no one. Hospitals outsource their catering, local governments outsource ‘care giving’.

It works. But at a cost. The sense of common endeavour in an organisation, of everyone pulling together to achieve a common purpose, will be lost if the traditional relationship of employer and employed (ideally a mutually respectful one) is replaced by the usual dog-eat-dog relationship of customer and supplier, where loyalty is usually absent. You will treat your cleaners differently if thy don’t directly ‘belong’ to you.

buck

And because of this it sometimes doesn’t work.

I stayed at a moderately-inexpensive hotel in Sydney for six nights last week. Comfortable enough, architecturally undistinguished, small room, no view, but fit for my purposes, except that the internet, with which I cannot live or breathe, was abominable. Dropped connections, slow to the point of stasis, no signal sometimes, ‘restart the router’ at other times, all the usual problems. But when I called down to reception, they tell me, ‘I’ll put you in touch with our service provider.’

‘Our service provider’ is a friendly lady, but she’s a few hundred miles away.

‘What hotel are you in?’ she asks, and then takes me through all the things I already know how to do.

‘I’ll call you back,’ she says.

She never does.

The nice girl at Reception shrugs. There’s nothing she can do. It’s been out of her hands, she says, ever since they outsourced the service.

The end result is not that no one cares, but that control is lost. The buck has been passed to someone for whom I am the distant irritant in Room 122 in a far away place of which she’s never heard.

So, think before outsourcing, even if it’s not a ‘core function’. Don’t lose control, don’t pass the buck. Be in a position both to care and to act. Otherwise your reputation may suffer.