On the most recent episode of my podcast, Deep Questions, a listener asked for my advice about delegation. This is an important topic that I haven’t talked a lot about before, so I thought it might be useful to sharpen and elaborate the answer I gave on my show.
In the office setting, most delegation occurs over email. You need something done that you either don’t have the time to do, or don’t want to do, or don’t know how to do: so you shoot off a quick message to put in on someone else’s plate. Our current moment of remote work has made these electronic hand-offs even more frequent.
As I explained on my podcast, however, I think this is a problem. You’d probably be better off if you instead worked backward from a simple rule that will make your life more annoying in the short term, but significantly more productive in the long term: don’t delegate using email.
Before we discuss how this is even possible, let’s touch on why it’s important.
When handing off tasks, email’s extreme efficiency can become a liability. It nudges you toward temporary relief of psychic discomfort. You think of something that you don’t want to forget, so you dash off an email: look into this and get back to me! Something new arrives in your inbox, creating a brief moment of obligation — oh no, something else I have to make time for — that can be dispelled with a quick forward of the message to a colleague.
I call this relief temporary, however, because you haven’t actually dissipated the discomfort. A quickly composed, ambiguous delegation email only passes this discomfort onto its recipient, perhaps even increasing the distress, as you’ve likely left out details clear to you, but not to the person grappling with your hasty missive. To make matters worse, this ambiguity will then require many more additional back-and-forth messages to try to approximate some clarity, further multiplying and spreading the cognitive toll of the original task.
When you instead enforce a simple no email delegation rule, this instinct to sacrifice the greater good for a smaller personal respite is stymied. Solutions that are overall more productive suddenly become necessary.
On my podcast, for example, I talk a lot about task board software, like Trello, Flow, or Asana. Instead of allowing tasks to exist implicitly among emails buried in an inbox, why not instead isolate and clarify them as standalone cards on a virtual task board? Now it’s clear who is supposed to be working on what, and all the information relevant to a given task can be appended to its card, instead of fracturing itself among impromptu email threads.
The person doing the delegation must now clarify what exactly they’re delegating. When creating a new card for a task, as opposed to dashing off a message, you’re forced to actually think through and articulate exactly what it is you want, when you need it, and what information will be required to get there.
These tasks boards also make it difficult to escape exactly how much you’re asking someone to do. It’s easy to shoot off a dozen emailed requests to a colleague throughout a busy day without thinking much about it. But when you instead see each card piled on top of another in that person’s column on a task board, the magnitude of what you’ve dispensed is unavoidable.
For quick tasks that arrive in the form of emails, I’ve also found ticketing systems to be useful. This allows messages to be transformed into tickets that can be assigned to specific team members, appended with notes, and labeled with their current status. This is how, for example, in my capacity as the Director of Graduate Studies for my department at Georgetown, I coordinate incoming email issues with my Graduate Program Manager (we use FreshDesk).
I can tell you from personal experience that the extra hassle in the moment of moving questions and requests into this system is absolutely worth it. The added structure of the ticketing system significantly reduces stress as compared to the alternative of attempting to juggle all of these obligations through an amorphous and ever-increasing tangle of undifferentiated emails.
I don’t want to fall too far down a productivity process rabbit hole here. My main observation is that when it comes to delegation, don’t be seduced by the promise of a temporary fix to the momentary crisis of having something new to wrangle. Email doesn’t have enough friction. It’s better to embrace a more structured system for identifying, describing, assigning and reviewing tasks that trades slightly more work right now for a significantly decreased cognitive toll for your organization in the future.