Sharpening Your Delegation Saw

Creating a well-oiled delegation process takes time. Even when it’s in place, we sometimes see “delegation breakdown” signs. It’s then time to sharpen your saw.

When tasks are late, forgotten, incomplete, or not completed to your satisfaction, we need to identify underlying problems.

Before we move into action and address delegation breakdowns, let’s do some sorting and figure out if we are dealing with a mishap or an excuse.

Step 1: Mishap or Excuse?

A mishap is something that, when corrected, doesn’t happen again. An excuse (on the other hand), once corrected, keeps happening (sometimes in a different package).


  • Identify which statements are mishaps and which might be excuses.

“I didn’t know you needed that.”
“Sorry. I’m a bit forgetful. That’s just the way I am.”
“We never set a deadline.”
“I thought I delivered what you asked for.”
“We never used to do it that way.”
“There’s too much to do. I can’t get to everything.”
“I gave it to James.”
“It’s at (insert someone else’s department).”
“I never got your message. Maybe it’s in my spam filter.”
“I’m on it!”
Insert your personal favorite

If you were hoping for a clear distinction, you’ll be disappointed. While some sound suspiciously like excuses, they also could be mishaps. Others certainly are excuses, but they may sound “reasonable.” An easy way to check which is a mishap and which is an excuse is to do a “tool-sharpening audit.”

Step 2: Tool-sharpening Audit

Before addressing breakdowns, let’s check to see how clearly or specifically we delegated the activity.

  • Pick a statement from the list above. For example, “I didn’t know you needed that” (or insert your version of the same type of statement).
  • Identify the delegation breakdown. In this case, you didn’t receive expected work because the person was unaware of your expectations.
  • Audit yourself:
    • Were the tasks I assigned SMART?
    • Did the person know what I expected and when? Did I set a check-in date and establish a crystal-clear deadline?
    • Did I describe what to do if they were unable to accomplish the task or meet the deadline?
    • Did I clearly articulate my performance standards for this activity (or in general)?

If you answered “yes” to all these questions, chances are you have an excuse on your hands. In that case, clarify and set new expectations. If it was truly a mishap or misunderstanding, your clarification will allow the person to flawlessly deliver in the future.

If you picked the statement, “Sorry. I’m a bit forgetful. That’s just the way I am,” you might want to clarify your non-negotiables or performance standards. If you accept forgetfulness from someone who is unwilling to change, you’ll have a perpetual delegation nightmare on your hands.

This grid will help you identify steps you need to take to prevent future delegation breakdowns.

The key to the tool-sharpening audit is to always review your own inefficiencies as a manager or delegator first. The good news is that you’re completely in charge of your shortcomings and can fix or correct them immediately.

The deeper issue of pervasive excuses and lack of delivery on delegated activities, however, warrant a different conversation. You may find The Path to Excellence post especially helpful when coaching your team to higher performance.

Congratulations on taking steps to become an exceptional manager, leader, and delegator.