What is it? You can't do everything. No, really, you just can't. That is why companies hire people, and why sensible bosses delegate at least some tasks and duties to others. Delegation is not dumping. It does not mean simply offloading work to others that you can't be bothered to do. True delegation involves passing on work that others are equipped to carry out. Sir John Harvey-Jones used to say that there was no great secret to leading a business well. All you had to do was hire as many talented people as possible and then delegate as much as possible to them.
Where did it come from? In his famous work The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith discussed the efficiency made possible by the division of labour. He described how work was organised in a pin factory: 'One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head ... the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about 18 distinct operations ...' But what Smith knew about delegation and work organisation over two centuries ago has tended to be forgotten and obscured in recent times.
Where is it going? Delegation is a skill in decline. What we have instead is overloading: endless emails, unrealistic deadlines, too many meetings and journeys, and lots of purposeless 'activity'. It is not clear whether it's the private or public sector which is the worse culprit: both are at it. And feeding this production line of futility are bosses who still micro-manage instead of delegating fairly and effectively. Better delegation would raise productivity, boost efficiency, offer genuine career development and generally make everybody's life at work a good deal happier. Do not expect to see an outbreak of better delegation any time soon.
Gradient: Slipping downhill fast.