Aug 24, 2022

What I Learned about Delegation from a Botched Attempt to Get a Candle

What I Learned about Delegation from a Botched Attempt to Get a Candle

What I Learned about Delegation from a Botched Attempt to Get a Candle

Nathan King

I was staying at nice hotel in the Philippines. Nice hotels have nice smells. I wanted to bring the experience home to my wife, who didn't travel with me, but loves staying at a nice hotel.

" Do you have a gift shop that sells candles?" I asked the concierge. She seemed confused. She wanted to help me, but this request wasn't in her playbook.

She walked over to speak with someone else behind the desk. Soon, three of them were talking, and a more senior person came over.

"Is this for your room?" he asked. I was confused. I thought the room smelled nice enough, why would I want to burn a candle?

"No, to take with me," I said.

He walked me over to the adjoining coffee and bake shop. Ahh, I thought. That makes sense. They have a small selection of hotel gift items on a shelf in there.

He spoke rapidly to the Barista in Tagalog. There was a little back and forth.

Then he said, "we've got one." He seemed pleased with himself. I was pleased too. "And no charge sir."

"That's very nice of you," I said. The service here is so good.

Then the barista produced a box, opened it, and handed me this:

That's right. A birthday candle.

This wasn't a language problem. They speak great English. I think my English is pretty good, too. The problem is the perspective is totally different.

The dramatic difference in perspective in this example illustrates how the result you want, and the result you are counting on someone else for, can be problematic. It is why so many of us prefer the shopping experience of browsing for what we want rather than asking a sales associate for assistance.

It also resembles a broader challenge anyone working within an organization faces: how to delegate.

The Risk of Delegation

Differing perspectives also explains a reluctance to delegate: last time I asked someone to find a scented candle but I got a birthday candle, so next time I will find it myself without depending on anyone.

Delegation in its most extreme form is outsourcing. In the last 30 years, outsourcing of services has surged, with the promise that skilled workers, empowered by the internet, can interact with American customers directly, and as a result expand the labor pool, and provide less costly labor.

Companies jump in to this but then run into problems. Effectively, they ask for a scented candle and get a birthday candle. In some ways, services are delivered technically "to spec." But in others, it doesn't meet performance criteria at all.

How to Overcome Miscommunication and Delegate Effectively

At its root, this is a delegation problem. An individual begins with a concept of what needs to get done, but then when handing it over, it doesn't work. The temptation is to pull it back in, to do it one your own. In the business world, outsourcing is nothing more than a dramatic example of delegation. Many managers struggle with delegation even to trusted staff.

The antitdote to this takes a bit of preparation, but it has a huge impact. Taking a page from the popular Kanban concept as described in the book Kanban, the first rule of thumb in this valuable process improvement method is to make the process explicit.

Making a process explicit makes it concrete. We humans need to see something to understand it. In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath state that to communicate effectively, in order to delegate well, we need to

find a “universal language,” one that everyone speaks fluently. Inevitably, that universal language will be concrete.

A useful way to do that is to ensure these questions are answered when a manager communicates what he wants done.

  1. what do you want done?

  2. what’s your vision for completion?

  3. why are we doing this? what are the milestones along the way?

  4. what’s the ultimate, final, drop-dead deadline? consider telling a story – what are the stakes if this goes well? poorly? IMPORTANT: can you show a sample of success? A screencast, screenshot, picture, video, sound clip, link to website… something?

The name of the game here, whether you are asking a hotel concierge for help finding a candle, outsourcing a process somewhere 10,000 miles away, or asking a subordinate across the hall to complete a project, is clarity.




I help leaders and teams achieve clarity and alignment so they can reach their potential


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