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Effective Delegation for Soft Landings

November 21, 2009

What can German parachutes teach us about good management? In the case of a recent visit to a German parachute manufacturing company, it was a metaphorical reminder of the two important management principles, delegation and control.

Consider the case of the parachutist. Is there any function in your business that is more essential to management than the parachute is to the sky diver? Probably not.

Because of the importance of having the chute packed correctly, one’s first impulse is, “if I want it done right, I’d better do it myself.”

Perhaps, but after some reflection one comes to the realization that if the chute is of paramount importance to survival, wouldn’t it be best if it were packed by someone who specialized in chute packing. It makes sense to delegate the responsibility for the packing of the skydiver’s parachute to a full time chute rigger.

However, after intellectual acceptance of the logic of delegating the responsibility for the chute packing, there will be a reluctance to do so. What happens if the parachute rigger has a bad day? Do they care as much about my chute as I do? After all, it’s my neck (job, business).

Despite the best of intentions, successful delegation never takes place without effective control. In the case of the parachute, chute packers are required to periodically jump in randomly selected chutes that they have packed. Effective control? You bet.

Establishing effective controls is an essential prerequisite for successful delegation (emphasis on effective controls). Over control will undermine the benefits of delegation. It would be as unproductive for the skydiver to watch every chute being packed as it would be for a manager to be looking over the shoulder of every employee.

Effective delegation relies on the fact that everyone can do something better than somebody else. A failure to delegate is an abuse of the law of comparative advantage. But delegation is one of the most difficult skills for even the most experienced managers to master.

Isolation, delegation, or abdication are three closely related states. Business owners that begin managing in isolation need to master delegation in order to grow. If they wait too long, they can become victims of their own abdication.

Abdication occurs when mounting pressures cause us to look for a savior that can solve our problems. There are no saviors. The only solutions are found in the development of good management systems. Effective delegation is an important element of a successful system.

The risk of isolation is that we limit our potential. The risk of abdication is that we lose control. The dangers of the later, far exceed the former.

Delegation is essentially the task of farming out one’s work to others and then making sure that the tasks assigned have been successfully performed. Effective delegation relies on the fact that everyone can do something useful. Failure to delegate is an abuse of the law of comparative advantage.

Ultimate accountability cannot be transferred. Delegation includes the assignment of meaningful responsibility and commensurate authority. It is dependent on the clarity and definition of the assignment. There must be established performance objectives, open lines of communication, and reasonable controls.

It would be a mistake, however, to delegate if there were no way to ensure that the work being delegated was going to be accomplished. Control thus becomes a central issue, and often a major impediment, in a manager’s decision to delegate.

Master the management skills of delegation and control and you’ll insure yourself a soft landing in a well run business like that German parachute manufacturer.

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