Making Mistakes - Delegating Success

I have always been perplexed by the leadership challenge of how to minimize the risks of delegating responsibility while ensuring that the work was done right. How does a leader encourage employees to take on tasks, assume risk and still get the job done right? Further, in this rapid paced world we all work in, I find that not a lot of time is spent on analyzing the outcomes of decisions to improve the odds of “getting it right” the next time. Or for that matter determining if we truly did get it right? This follow up analysis is the responsibility of the leadership team, but sadly, it is rarely done.

What the heck happened here?

While leaders aren’t responsible to analyze each and every subordinate action, there should be an atmosphere of encouragement around the process of evaluating outcomes. As a leader, I’ve developed a process of minimizing risks while delegating and assessing results as a follow up. This process has been developed over the past twenty years and has served me well. I apply it even today in my work as a leadership consultant.

How To Know What You Don’t Know

People learn new tasks in a number of ways. Early in my career, I was presented with a chart outlining the stages of human learning, shown below. I have modified (*) the chart to take into account my own experiences. While I cannot claim ownership of the idea, I think I understand and apply it’s message to leadership and delegation:

Competency Gained Through Practice
Conscious Adult Learning


Competent Incompetent


3 - conscious competence

  • the person achieves ‘conscious competence’ in a skill when they can perform it reliably at will.
  • the person will need to concentrate and think in order to perform the skill.
  • the person can perform the skill without assistance.
  • the person will not reliably perform the skill unless thinking about it - the skill is not yet ’second nature’ or ‘automatic’.
  • the person should be able to demonstrate the skill to another, but is unlikely to be able to teach it well to another person.
  • the person should ideally continue to practice the new skill, and if appropriate, commit to becoming ‘unconsciously competent’ at the new skill.
  • practice is the single most effective way to move from stage 3 to 4.

2 - conscious incompetence

  • the person becomes aware of the existence and relevance of the skill.
  • the person is therefore also aware of their deficiency in this area, ideally by attempting or trying to use the skill.
  • the person realizes that by improving their skill or ability in this area their effectiveness will improve
  • ideally the person has a measure of the extent of their deficiency in the relevant skill, and a measure of what level of skill is required for their own competence
  • the person ideally makes a commitment to learn and practice the new skill, and to move to the ‘conscious competence’ stage


4 - unconscious competence

  • the skill becomes so practiced that it enters the
  • unconscious parts of the brain - it becomes ’second nature’
  • common examples are driving, sports activities,
  • typing, manual dexterity tasks, listening and communicating
  • it becomes possible for certain skills to be performed while doing something else, for example, knitting while reading a book
  • the person might now be able to teach others in the skill concerned, although after some time of being unconsciously competent the person might actually have difficulty in explaining exactly how they do it - the skill has become largely instinctual
  • this arguably gives rise to the need for long-standing unconscious competence to be checked periodically against new standards

1 - unconscious incompetence

  • the person is not aware of the existence or relevance of the skill area
  • the person is not aware that they have a particular deficiency in the area concerned
  • the person might deny the relevance or usefulness of the new skill
  • the person must become conscious of their incompetence before development of the new skill or learning can begin
  • the aim of the trainee or learner and the trainer or teacher is to move the person into the ‘conscious competence’ stage, by
    demonstrating the skill or ability and the benefit that it will bring to
    the person’s effectiveness
  • the person lapses from unconscious competence (or other states) to this state due to developing bad habits or behavioral issues

Source: *

In brief, there are various common State/Capability outcomes that can occur when people do tasks at various levels of success.

  1. Unconscious Incompetence = you don’t know that you can’t do it well.
  2. Conscious Incompetence = you know you can’t do it well.
  3. Conscious Competence = you do it well, and you think about the work as you do it.
  4. Unconscious Competence = you’re so successful it’s “automatic” — you do it well, without thinking about it.

What Worked?

So, with that knowledge, we must look at outcomes (via Root Cause Analysis or some other evaluation method) of task performance at a subordinate level to determine the success achieved through delegation. In cases where the individual has ‘got it right’ we need to understand whether is was a State 3 or 4 success. State 3 successes usually requires further challenges in that area to assist in moving the individual to a state 4.

If the individual did not achieve the expected outcome we typically find mistakes occur because of four distinct error possibilities. These are not entirely definitive but again using the 80/20 rule we find these represent more than 80 percent of mistakes I’ve analyzed:

  1. Don’t know how to do it right,
  2. Get it wrong,
  3. Not getting it right, or
  4. The process was wrong.

Fix It If It’s Broke

In each of these cases there is a course of action:

  1. Don’t know how to do it right - in this case we must determine if additional training, review or coaching will ensure that the individual is knowledgeable and competent enough to be able to do the task correctly. This is typically the easiest situation to remedy. Ensure the process is clear and the skills required for successful achievement are communicated and exist.

  2. Get it wrong – Be prepared for this outcome in delegated tasks that require a high degree of individual competence. Determine if the individual has clearly understood the task. In some instances, it may be the lack of understanding of the task difficulty (for instance if it is complex or requires combining advanced management skills) and/or the fact that it is pushing the envelope of the individual’s managerial capabilities. In these cases, as a leader, you need to be clear about setting expectations for incremental achievements and be prepared for more frequent ‘check-ins’ with the boss.
  3. Not getting it right – This is the most difficult of the outcomes. Seemingly your employee has all the skills, capability and understanding of the task and still did not get it done as expected. This may require further investigation on your part to ensure you know all of the factors. Many elements can play into this undesired outcome. Dimensions you need to consider are time factors (was the individual overloaded?), personal issues (did the individual have outside demands?) or commitment (how does the individual perceive the importance of the task?). In any case, you need to delve a bit further to develop an effective strategy to resolve the failure.
  4. The Process was wrong – Here is your quick fix. Processes that should work, but fail, need to be reviewed, modified, and validated. In this case it is straight forward to ensure a corrected process is created and applied. As a point to note it is often the case where you might encounter a state 3 or 4 success with one of your subordinates but in doing so they have run into bad process and corrected it on their own. More competent individuals who resolve these process issues do so in a fashion that is complete, communicated and often very simplified.

Leadership Lessons Learned?

Analyzing outcomes from the actions of your subordinates is a good means of confirming for you and them that they are becoming increasing more competent at their tasks. It is a practiced leader who can determine the learning state of the individual and resolves why a mistake was made. With these two critical bits of information you can move forward with performance improvement.

An effective leader sets this process in motion and then expects that the delegated tasks can be objectively reviewed by the subordinate responsible. Not every task needs assessment but there is a need to complete representative samples of outcomes to confirm both the state of learning and the ability to execute on delegated objectives. A good leader will inspire both evaluation and improvement.

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