Delegating correctly: There can only be one!

Highlander: There can only be one!

Highlander: There can only be one!

When you plan a project you must make some decisions. You must decide who does what and by when. Everyone knows this, but it is nevertheless done incorrectly all the time.

Many projects fail because objectives are vaguely formulated, or tasks and responsibilities are not clear. That is unfortunate. This costs time, money and image.

When work assignments are defined, it must be crystal clear who is responsible for their successful completion. Only one person can assume responsibility for the project – not two or three.

The responsible party does not have to do everything on his own.

Whoever assumes the responsibility does not have to complete all the work by himself. But he is responsible for making sure it gets done. Once he recognizes that the work cannot be completed on time, or not at all, he must inform all those involved and you as the assigning party. If the project has hit the wall, it is his job to bring about a decision for the next steps.

Two responsible parties?

Unfortunately it is common that two persons are designated as responsible parties for a task. Just recently I witnessed the following situation at one of my clients, a technical service enterprise. The list for important projects had two responsible parties assigned to a critical work package: Mr. Smith and Mr. Johnson. When I asked him about it, the Managing Director told me:

“The scope of this work package includes mechanical and electrical tasks. That’s why we assigned two responsible parties: Mr. Smith, our head for the mechanical engineering department, and our best electrician, Mr. Johnson.”

Who decides?

Can you imagine what happens if this project were to run into problems? In particular if the participants cannot decide whether the problem is of electrical or mechanical nature? Who, between the two of them, makes the decision then? Who is responsible for telling the Managing Director that the project will not be completed within the specified time, or that the project will unfortunately cost 30% more than originally planned?

Whenever several people are responsible for the same project, no one is truly responsible. There is a good chance that each will pass the buck in a crisis situation. No one decides. The other one is always at fault.

There can only be one!

This is how not to do it. When the responsibility for a project is at stake, you must always ensure:

“There can only be one!”
(Paraphrased from the Highlander).

If Mr. Smith is the party responsible for the project, and is well versed with the mechanical, but not with the electrical aspects, then he needs to ask Mr. Johnson for input and assistance. But the responsibility for the project remains with Mr. Smith. He is the one to decide for the project, and the one who must inform when something gets off track. There can only be one!


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  • I agree with the conclusion. With the analysis, I disagree!

    The analysis is based on the assumption: There is someone who distributes tasks.
    The responsibility for implementation derives from this distribution of tasks.
    In a functional technocratic world this assumption may be correct. In a human community it is more of an utopian ideal.
    In human work the person who acts always will be in real the person who takes responsibility. Even in your example it would be like this. The one of the two who starts acting and implementing would be the responsible one for good and for bad.

    However this applies too: There can be only one.
    But the conditions which are needed to come to a meaningful action, based on common agreements, are quite different from those you describe.

    Don’t get me wrong. I agree with you in a normal functionally hierarchy. But I want to show that there is a human level beyond our theoretical conceptions of delegation that is often forgotten. However, it is – with regard to the capacity of each – much more important than any perfectly well understood and lived way of functional delegation.

    Kind regards

  • Dear Gebhard,

    Thanks for your comment.
    I agree that the human level is often forgotten. With this article I wanted to make clear that it is important that only one person should be in charge for a certain task e.g. in a project.
    I think I should have mentioned: Even in a functional technocratic world this person needs to activly take over the responsibility. It is not enough, that a boss just assigns the responsibility to this person.

    Best Regards

  • Dear Bernd,

    Concerning the topic of responsibility.

    To my mind, it does not matter how many people should be responsible for the execution of the project.
    I have outlined the solution of the question somewhat differently:
    1. There is a problem in the business (project) to be solved. It is the GOAL.
    2. There are certain parameters of the goal. This is a detailed task or subgoals.
    3. There are some skilled performers.
    4. There are some tools to solve these problems and achieve the goal.
    If the goal is reached, it means that the project is completed. It does not matter here, how many people managed this project. The important think is the successful result.
    You can assign responsibility for the project one, two or more people.
    But if these people are incompetent, then they will not solve the problem.
    Conversely, a team of real experts able to achieve the desired result efficiently and quickly enough.
    If the question is: “Who exactly should be encouraged, if successful or punish, in case of failure”, I agree with your assumption.
    And some more, to be called the official representative (executor) of the project, as the main link of exchange information with the customer.

    By the way, we use «© Personnel Automatic Motivation Systems» in our consulting practice.
    For general information, the technology of business-consulting can be found on our website ( / staff.html). However, this info is still only in Russian.
    And the problems “How many people should manage project” and “How to motivate employees” are not essential for us.
    Of course, we must also take into account many factors (quality and level of life in the country, the political situation, etc.).
    Therefore, the motivation system can not be universal for all.

    The question of responsibility for some think to be considered comprehensively.

    Best regards,

    • Dear Sergey,

      Thank you very much for your comment.
      I agree with you that a project will fail if you assign responsibility to incompetent people.
      And then it does not matter if only one person is in charge or several. The project will fail.

      My point with responsibility is that we need one competent person who activly takes over responsibility of one task.
      Even if you only have competent people working for you it has to be clear who is doing what until when. Everyone needs to know what he needs to do or what he should take care of.
      Otherwise we might get into the situation that a certain task is not carried out. Not because there are incompetent or demotivated people involved but because it is not defined who is doing the work. All people infove may think that someone else is doing this task.

      The guy who is in charge for a goal is also in charge to take care that it is crystal clear who will carry out what work until when.

      Have a great day