Should you delegate or do it yourself? A framework to help you decide

The following is a framework presented in a lecture by Keith Rabois in Sam Altman’s ‘How to Start a Startup’ lecture series at Stanford. This is a paraphrase of his talk.

Paraphrasing from Keith Rabois:

Question: Should I delegate this or do it myself?

Who’s this for: People in a management role.

When to use it: When trying to decide whether to delegate some task.

Background: To use the roles of writers and editors as a metaphor, editors are not writing most of the content in any publication. The same is true of your company: you shouldn’t be doing most of the work. And the way you get out of most of the work is to delegate.

Now the problem with delegating is that as the CEO or founder, you are actually responsible for everything. There is no excuse if things don’t go well. So how do you both delegate but not abdicate? It’s a pretty tricky challenge because both are sins: to abdicate, or to micromanage.

Framework: How do you decide whether to delegate it or do it yourself? Use this two by two matrix.

You basically sort your own level of conviction about a decision on a grate, extremely high or extremely low. There’s times when you know something is a mistake and there’s times when you wouldn’t really do it that way but you have no idea whether it’s the right or wrong answer. And then there is a consequence dimension. There are things that if you make the wrong decision are very catastrophic to your company and you will fail. There are things that are pretty low impact. At the end of the day they aren’t really going to make a big difference, at least initially.

So what I basically believe is where there is low consequence and you have very low confidence in your own opinion, you should absolutely delegate. And delegate completely, let people make mistakes and learn. On the other side, obviously where the consequences are dramatic and you have extremely high conviction that you are right, you actually can’t let your junior colleague make a mistake. You’re ultimately responsible for that mistake and it’s really important. You just can’t allow that to happen.

Example: An example of this is at Square, one of my favorite people in the world and my second hire, first marketing hire, had this program he wanted to run called Inner Square which allowed Square merchants to give out, imagine a food truck outside put out ten Squares on the counter and people could just grab them. And Kyle had this great idea that this would be an awesome marketing program. Squares would spread Squares to other people and to some extent it was on brand. So it didn’t have catastrophic consequences. Each of these ten Squares didn’t cost that much money, so financially we could afford to do it. But at that time, my ten years of experience said it was not going to work on a meaningful enough scale for our metrics and I preferred not to do it. Kyle was so excited about this that I decided to just let him do it. He learned that when you measure this thing, it’s not massive. It doesn’t create massive value for the company. It did require a fair amount of operational complexity to ship all these Squares to people and figure out how to get them, etc, etc. But it allowed him to be excited about his job and to learn how to filter future ideas. So it was totally worth letting him make the “mistake”.

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