Most People’s Approach to Delegation is Wrong

In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Issacson tells the story of how Jobs used to go down to Jonny Ive’s design department most Wednesday afternoons to go over prototypes and review proposals. Most people hear that story and think, “Wow, Steve Jobs really focused on design and built the most valuable company in the world as a result, we should focus on design too”.

But, what I find fascinating about that story is not the apparent importance of design, it’s the fact that the CEO of a major international corporation was able to carve out so much of his week, on a regular basis, and the company kept running just fine. Most high level bosses I know spend all their time fire-fighting, and spending half a day a week on something like that seems out of the question. Steve Jobs must have been an excellent delegator.

Most training on delegation starts and ends with the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, which basically says that you should give your urgent but unimportant tasks to someone else. That may be true, but most of the over worked people I know are overloaded with tasks they consider urgent and important. What should they do?

Don’t Delegate, Systemize

When things get too busy, I think that’s a sign that you need to move one layer of abstraction up from where you are now. If your job is writing news articles, you need to become the person who edits news articles. If your job is coding websites, you need to become the person who manages the website coders, or the person who writes a content management system. If you cook meals, you need to become the person who designs the menus and trains the other chefs.

This is not easy. There’s no easy to remember system for doing this. But here are a few suggestions on how to approach it.

You’ll need to start by being really really good at what you do. Then you need to try and break down what you do into small components. Can you identify patterns in what you do? Can you write down your thought process and explain it to others? Can you automate some parts of the process? At first this would seem artificial and slow, “it’s quicker if I just do it myself” you might say. But only then can you start handing out parts of what you do to others and scaling up the whole operation.

You won’t be able to delegate everything. But what you’re left with is your personal USP (unique selling point). It’s the bit that you and only you can do. In Steve Job’s case it seems he kept hold of the one part of the creative process that he couldn’t systemize: Good Taste. He’s famous for destroying people publicly if they produced work he didn’t think was up to much. But while his methods may have been cruel and probably unnecessary, the systematization of Apple’s design process clearly worked because it produced good results across the board, with a steady flow of beautifully designed products coming out of Apple over the past 15 years.