How to keep all the plates spinning at once

It’s 10pm on a busy Friday night at the charming yet, at the moment, rather chaotic restaurant I used to work in back in my hometown. The orders are coming in faster than the meals are going out. The customers are getting hungry and table 12 has been waiting half an hour for their drinks order to arrive. We’re running low on our best-selling wine and a jug of water has just been spilled on the floor.

Earlier in the day, we looked calm and collected. Now, there’s a tangible sense of panic as nobody knows exactly who should be doing what to keep this show on the road. Each of us is trying to resolve multiple problems in our own super-speedy way, often adding to the sense of chaos around us. I almost expect chef Gordon Ramsey and the cameras to roll in and tell us that we’ve been set up as one of his “Kitchen Nightmares”. He didn’t, but the tips weren’t great that night for sure.

A delegate business

I share this example because, when I started to think about outsourcing, it reminded me that when we try to take on responsibility for every part of a project, we’re often about as effective as a chocolate teapot on a sunny afternoon. Things get sticky pretty quickly. But even though we often recognise that we can’t do it all ourselves, the ability to delegate effectively is a crucial yet often undervalued skill. Crucial because by delegating we empower ourselves and others to achieve common goals within tight deadlines and budgetary restrictions, while allowing each part to concentrate on his or her core skills. But undervalued because, even in the most non-hierarchical organisational structures (and let’s face it, there is usually some kind of hierarchical structure at play), delegating can sometimes unfairly be seen as a way of “passing the buck”, “losing control” or adding unnecessary “process” or “expense”. A certain nervousness (or even pride) about delegation is almost intrinsic to human nature: if our project means so much to us, can we really trust its success to the hands of others? Wouldn’t it be better to simply put in the work and trust our own skills, efforts and judgments?

The simple answer is no. And countless business and political leaders have expressed their thoughts on this subject. Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur who knows a thing or two about building a business empire, said: “If you really want to grow as an entrepreneur, you’ve got to learn to delegate.” And Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States of the America, added a little more psychology (and possibly a touch of humour) to his advice in this area: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” Not a bad model for success, in our eyes.

Delegating with distinction

Of course, the process of outsourcing work to external vendors or service providers is critically dependent on the actual act of delegating tasks.  In our industry, the practice of outsourcing is a long established and growing model for doing business. It can help to bring in new skillsets, deal with extra capacity, reduce costs, enhance creativity or technical capabilities, and ultimately lead to better finished products and services.

So while the reasons for delegating outsourced work are fairly self-evident, it can be quite another thing to properly delegate that task so that it actually gains traction, and moves forward and achieves the desired result. This kind of outcome is not, however, the result of luck or chance. It’s simply a question of understanding the challenges involved, the resources that are at your disposal, getting your team to buy into some common values and goals, and giving them the skills and equipment to get on with the job. Simple, right?

If you can’t stand the heat…

Perhaps you’ll allow me to revisit my experience in the restaurant where I used to work to give you an insight where it certainly didn’t happen that way for us – at least to start with. This Greek family-owned restaurant in my hometown made pizzas, sandwiches, and things like that.  My boss was a great guy, typical hardworking old-school Greek, with enough passion and drive to run the whole place by himself if you just gave him a few more hands. But, unfortunately, he had neither the super-human strength of Achilles nor the natural delegation skills of a Fortune 500 CEO. With him at the helm and myself and my colleague working alongside him, we had a motivated and hardworking team who knew the restaurant inside out.

But, each night as the evening drew on, we all developed a barely suppressed sense of anxiety as our environment seemed to slip from out of our total control. As the customers flooded in and orders built up, the workflow wasn’t in place to deal with the heightened pace. We had the skills – all of us knew how to work the cash register, make pizzas, flip burgers and toss together salads – and we had enough staff but we weren’t working effectively as a team.

The turning point

In contrast, at less busy times, it was like a well-oiled machine. At this less busy pace, our boss could direct us each to jump in and out of the process to help each other when there was time to give instructions and to make it clear what needed to be done first. What was needed was to transfer that successful ability to prioritise and multitask to situations where we could make it work better under greater pressure. So, our boss took an important decision. One day he sat down with the team and we spent some significant time looking at the key problems we’d been encountering. More importantly still, we began identifying solutions and delegated exactly who would do what to manage challenging situations as the restaurant got busier. So for example, if we ran out of change, who would go across the road to get more? If there was a spill, who was responsible for cleaning it up? Simple enough stuff, but the results, even in a short timeframe, were pretty dramatic. Even Chef Ramsey might have been proud!

This is where delegation comes into play and without it, I may not have lasted very long at that job, or any other job I’ve had after that.  I think it’s easy to overlook because most of the time, people don’t delegate because they just don’t have the time or the patience from the beginning to make it a reality. In the case above, the way my boss had previously tried delegating “in the heat of the action” just simply hadn’t worked. In fact, this “on the go” approach to delegation wasn’t able to function effectively once the pace and pressure was increased – there simply wasn’t enough time to give and explain instructions anew each time when working under a very tight deadline in rapidly changing circumstances. What worked better, much better in fact, was looking in advance at what the key challenges would be as the restaurant got busier, and delegating very specific responsibilities to each member of the team to respond to them – as the situation changed. Our crucial new understanding was that our roles needed to adapt as the environment around us changed – and it actually came to be quite a buzz as we could now successfully cope even at our busiest times. We were, as we liked to say, in the zone.

The power to empower

Of course, it not only matters what we delegate, but also how we delegate the work involved. After a few weeks of blood, sweat and tears (literally all three of those) the three of us got a feel for our roles when it became busy, and we ended up working like a well-oiled machine.  And even though my boss did get better over time at delegating which person had to do what work, there was a definite learning curve involved in the process. Because it was relatively easy to identify that each person should be working towards their strengths, and in their own area of expertise. What’s harder is when we ask people to move out of their comfort zones and into areas in which they have less experience or skills. In a multi-tasking environment (such as the busy restaurant) learning new skills and being able to implement them effectively is a real asset to any team – it gives you the ability to adapt to different circumstances because more of your people are able to take on more responsibilities at any given time.

However, what took a little while to learn was that when we’re asking people to move out of the comfort zone, we need to empower them with the tools, skills and mindsets to be able to do it. Obviously they need to be trained in relevant skills, but it also makes sense to increase exposure to a new responsibility in a carefully graded manner, so that people are not left to deal with unfamiliar tasks without support or asked to “jump in at the deep end” in peak times. Building experience, and crucially confidence, is as much a part of good delegation as deciding who does what. Strong and open communication channels play an important role in successful delegation – your team should always know to whom they can turn to for help and advice, and feel comfortable doing so.

Trust is learned

Finally, we come to the all-important crux of any relationship: trust. Trying to micro-manage every step of a task you’ve delegated is a bit like having your Dad in the backseat of the car telling you when to change gears, which lane to switch to, and why you’ve just selected the least optimal route. If you don’t kick him out of the car first, you might still get to your destination on time, but you’re unlikely to want to make that journey again.

Ultimately, if you’ve put enough thought into your selection process and ensured your chosen team has ability and experience to do the job, the biggest favour you can do for your project is to let them get on with it. People who feel trusted also feel empowered and motivated – your belief in them builds self-confidence and a sense of purpose. Nevertheless, there is of course, nothing wrong with “checking in” at certain strategic points to monitor progress. Obviously, these should be at appropriately spaced intervals, so as to avoid the sensation of someone “watching over”. But in the right places, and done in the right ways, these can be really valuable to both sides. In particular, you can ask for a progress update but also ask if there have been any problems or issues that the outsourced worker has encountered and would like to discuss or clarify to make the rest of the project run easier. Let them know how you can help them, rather just than just asking what they have done for you. And if you do notice things that do need to be improved or done differently, it’s much more productive to work with constructive criticism – explain what’s not quite right, why it is important, and what can be done to put it better. Crucially, however, don’t just pick out the negatives. If you see things that have been done well and are meeting your project goals, show that you recognise and value this good work.

Delegation: a dish for all seasons

Of course, for each organisation and each project, the recipe for delegating successfully to outsourced workers or teams can be a little different. But hopefully in this short article, we’ve give you an overview of what we think are the key ingredients: understanding your challenges and goals, identifying practical solutions, choosing the right team, delegating tasks according to strengths and skillsets, empowering people to be able to carry out their designated tasks and to develop new skillsets where appropriate, trusting people to get on with the job, and supporting their progress constructively.

When put into place, it can be deliciously simple and effective. And if you’d like to try a taste of well-ordered delegation in action, why not swing by my favourite hometown restaurant Nashoba Pizza & Seafood back in Westford, MA, USA. I’m no longer on the team, but I’m pretty sure, whatever time you visit, they’ll still be running a tight ship. And ask for George – tell him I sent you.