Buffet delegation: A low-risk way to delegate difficult work
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Published: November 2020
Delegation is usually push-based: you select the work and then delegate it.
Often, we prefer to use a process we call buffet delegation. (Note that it’s “buffet” with one “t”—as in cheese cubes and mini turkey meatballs. It has nothing to do with Warren Buffett.) Buffet delegation is pull-based: we lay out all the work that needs doing, and then the person to whom we are delegating chooses the work at which they believe they’d be best.
Buffet delegation is particularly suitable for delegating to someone new to our company (because they know what they are best at, and we don’t).
A buffet-delegation meeting typically lasts about an hour. We spend most of that time talking through all the projects on our to-do lists. The meeting is unrushed, and exploratory to the point of feeling inefficient. The goal is to identify work that lies at the intersection of the following:
- It matches their skills and interests, so they’ll be able to do it well.
- It’s standalone enough so that it doesn’t require a vast amount of prior knowledge, training, or handover work.
- It’s a high priority for our company. In the past, we have made the mistake of delegating work that’s wasn’t already on our to-do lists. We ended up stuck with our existing workload and not having time to manage the new work.
A side effect of buffet-delegation meetings is that the person learns about all the other things we are working on, giving them a bird’s-eye view of our company.
If you do try buffet delegation, please let us know how you get on so that we can update this article. Is there anything we should change or add?
After we published this article, a reader emailed us with the following questions. We have pasted our responses below in case you find them useful.
Who prepares the list of priorities?
On the call, we (the delegators) present the projects or goals that are our highest priorities. At the end of the meeting, we all agree on what the person will work on—and keep notes in a shared Google Doc.
How many people are there for the meeting (large meetings can be inefficient)
On our last one, there were three of us (two delegators and one delegatee). That’s typical.
Incidentally, the delegatee skipped straight past the tasks that we had earmarked for him. When we pushed the issue, he said he wasn’t interested in those projects and didn’t think he’d be good at them. If we had delegated those projects normally, the results would have been disappointing, and we’d have been to blame.
What do you do with the leftover tasks, especially the ones no one is keen on doing?
If the task is nonessential, it gets postponed. Many marketing and entrepreneurial activities are nonessential, because there are so many ways to reach the same outcome, so only a small fraction of our ideas list can ever get done.
If the task is essential and urgent, it tends to get picked by whichever existing team member has the right skills, experience, and capacity. In practice, there’s usually an awkward pause during the call during which people say things like
- “I don’t think this is for me because…”
- “I wonder if this belongs with you, because…”
- “I’d be happy to do it if someone could free me up by looking after this other project I’m working on.”
The process tends to be collaborative and harmonious—particularly because if a project is unappealing, there’s more gratitude up for grabs for whoever takes it on.
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