How Do You Delegate If You Don’t Have a Staff?

Whenever I write or speak on the topic of delegation (as I did yesterday), I always get a question from someone who says, “But what if you don’t have a staff? How can you delegate?” This question typically comes from staff people, technicians, stand-alone professionals, or start-up entrepreneurs. It’s a great question.

Worker gets the squeeze from some stacks of file folders - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #8186932

Photo courtesy of ©

I recommend seven strategies to those who feel the need to delegate but have no one to whom they can delegate:

  1. Triage your to-do list. Go through each item and assign it one of the following four letters:
    • A—tasks that are urgent.
    • B—tasks that are important but not urgent.
    • C—tasks that are somewhat important.
    • D—tasks that are neither urgent nor important.

    Now completely delete your D-level tasks. Then go through and see how many of the C-level tasks you can delete.

  2. Use technology more efficiently. Many people don’t avail themselves of the technology that is already at their fingertips. For example, why struggle with trying to setup a complex system of email file folders and then determine where each email goes? You think, Should I file that email from Bill about the ABC account and the XYZ account in Bill’s folder, ABC’s folder, XYZ’s folder, or all three? Instead, just move every processed email to one folder called “Processed Email” or, more simply, “Archive.” When you need to refer back to the email, let your software’s built-in search function do the heavy-lifting. It will find the email in less than a second.
  3. Negotiate out of previous assignments. Yes, you may have agreed to take on a certain project, but when your boss comes back with another one, you can say, “I’d be happy to do that. Is this project more important than the previous assignment you gave me? I honestly don’t think I can do both. Which one would you prefer I do?” If she insists on both, you can at least insist she prioritize them and thus set her expectations so that you won’t have to do both of them simultaneously.
  4. Ask for some volunteer help. Believe it or not, some people may actually like the work you are not good at or don’t like. (This is what makes the world go around.) Sometimes you can barter some work with a friend or colleague: “How about if I design your new blog in exchange for you preparing my taxes?” This is a little bit of the I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine strategy. You might also consider interns or students who are desperate for the experience and a letter of recommendation. I have see this work very well, provided you are clear with the expectations up front.
  5. Use variable cost alternatives. This is a phrase your bottom-line boss will appreciate. Good leaders and managers are loath to add “fixed overhead” (i.e., permanent positions). For starters, it doesn’t provide enough flexibility if the workload is seasonal or there is a downturn in the economy. Instead, you should attempt to outsource specific projects or entire processes. Tim Ferriss, in his fascinating book, The 4-Hour Workweek, describes in detail how to use a personal virtual assistant. He recommends, a company in India that specializes in this. I used them a while back as an experiment. I liked their system, but found that my own real assistant was all I needed.
  6. Appeal for more resources. Eventually, you may need to make the case to your boss (or yourself, if you are an entrepreneur) that you simply must hire someone. Before you can persuade your boss, you need to think like your boss. What is important to him? How does an additional person help him achieve his goals? I have written previously on the topic of “How to Get Your Boss’s Approval When You Need It.” While it doesn’t address this need specifically, the principles and methodology still apply.
  7. Muster the courage to say “no.” If all else fails, you may have to decline taking on other assignments and suffer the fallout. This comes down to priority management. You have to establish your boundaries and then (graciously) enforce them. There is too much at stake—your health, your family, your legacy, etc.—to do otherwise. Doing this has never hurt my career. In fact, I think it enabled me to get where I am today. It demonstrated to my boss that I had clear priorities and am willing to pay the price to live by them.

I know this just scratches the surface, but I firmly believe in the principle that “he who is faithful in little is also faithful in much” (see Luke 16:10). If you are a good steward with what you have been given, you will eventually be given more.

Question: How do you handle this issue in your job? Do you have any additional strategies to share?

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