A manager, or indeed anyone who has subordinates, faces the eternal challenge of delegating tasks. If done right, delegation is a magic cure for the shackles of limited time, but if done wrong it is a headache and a source of grave frustration for the manager.

In an ideal world, a delegated task gets completed by someone else, to a satisfactory level - saving the manager time which they can dedicate to other important tasks. Unfortunately many delegated tasks are often poorly executed, or not at all. From here it seems arose the saying:

-- “If you want something done, do it yourself.”

The formula

This got me thinking about the science (or is it an art?) of successfully delegating tasks in the workplace. It occurs to me that a successful delegation is a product of two variables:

 Successful Delegation = c x m

  • c - The competence of the person to whom a task is delegated
  • m - The ability of the manager to articulate his expected deliverable

The “c” is a relatively simple parameter. The person to whom you delegate needs to be intelligent enough to handle the task you are setting them. It makes little sense to give complex algebra tasks to a sculptor with no algebra experience. The candidate must be intellectually capable of handling the task at hand.

The “m” is more of an art on the part of the manager, who must be prepared to invest his time to clearly explain the task, his preferred method of execution, and explicit, measurable deliverables. This skillset of the manager is akin to that of a good teacher: being wise and being able to impart wisdom to another human being are two entirely different skills (which don’t necessarily overlap). If a manager is very wise but unable to set clear tasks, then he can expect to have poor results at the end of the process.

Case study: JP Morgan

In my time as an analyst at JP Morgan investment banking my work day typically started at 9am and ended at 3am (yup 3am - that’s an 18 hour day). This is why all investment bankers are so obsessed with efficiency and excel shortcuts - a few minutes less at work means that we have a few minutes more to sleep at home! Delegation can go a long way to help.

In our second year as analysts we were finally given Interns. These young, university students are very bright but have zero relevant work experience. Many of my peers attempted to work with interns but gave up trying after several failed attempts (they set interns tasks and received poor results that the analysts had to re-do themselves). The analysts decided to do everything themselves rather than “waste time” on interns. The problem here was not the "c" in the formula, but rather the "m": The interns were bright enough to handle the work, they just lacked the experience and training, and the analysts did not want to use precious time on educating their interns.

I adopted a different policy. I selected one intern and decided to invest in him. Rather than dumping tasks on his desks without much of an explanation (which would inevitably yield sub-par results) I invested a few hours every day for a week in educating the intern (this was my "m" input into the formula). This meant that I finished at 4-5am every day that week. What I realised was that the intern was smart enough (had the necessary "c"), and after my training he was able to work autonomously. It required a front loaded investment of my time to explain and educate him, but the investment paid off as it saved me two hours per day for the next three months through delegation of some of my tasks to the intern. For the next three months I was able to go home at 1am instead of the usual 3am and the intern was the happiest on our floor as he gained a good experience and learned something (rather than being confused and swamped with unexplained tasks like some of his peers).

Social benefit of delegation

The great positive externality of delegation is the training and knowledge that a manager imparts on his subordinate, creating value and increasing the knowledge of the subordinate. Delegation is analogous the the second part of the saying:

-- “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Delegation raises the overall quality of the team because it comes with the inherent positive externality of training up subordinates in the skills of their managers. If executed correctly, each delegated task will serve as both a lesson and a test of the lesson in one go, raising the skills of a subordinate a step closer to the knowledge level of his manger and preparing him to eventually move up within the organisation and then in turn to pass on his training to those working below him by continuing the cycle of delegation. Delegation feeds upward mobility in any workplace.

Manager - delegates simpler tasks, has more free time to deal with more complicated matters that require his managerial skills
Subordinate - learns new skills to accomplish the simple tasks, making him ready to tackle more complicated delegated tasks next time around


Delegation is a powerful tool, which should save the manager time and impart wisdom to subordinates, increasing the overall training and productivity of the entire team and aiding upward mobility in the workplace. However it only works if the “Successful Delegation” formula is satisfied, taking into account the subordinate’s competence and the manager’s ability to delegate.