Dr John Lockley discusses how delegating work through the cascade of practice staff can save time for all involved

A is a practice manager—and like all practice managers has far too much to do. The practice could really do with another half-time PM to help out, but can’t afford one. What can it do?

A’s personal assistant—B—currently arranges A’s diary, does the book-keeping, looks after the IT, and types all A’s administrative letters. So A delegates half of the existing (lower-level) work to B: A is no longer overloaded.

However, B now has 50% too much to do. A arranges for B to delegate half of B’s work to C, who used to process the referral letters, make the tea, and generally help out in the office. B’s workload is now appropriate, but C is 50% overloaded, and clearly hasn’t the time to make the tea or run errands.

So the practice employs a new, halftime member of staff—D—to be the office junior and do all the odd jobs that C used to do.

As a result the practice has acquired an extra half-time practice manager for the cost of a half-time office junior, and no one is overworked.


Delegate effectively

The above is the simple version, where all delegated jobs are well within the competence and duties of the person to whom they are given.

There’s an alternative, more developed version of this plan in which the PM delegates 50% of their jobs to their personal assistant, who then has to learn some extra skills in order to deal with them. Because the personal assistant is now working at a slightly higher grade, they are within their rights to ask for a pay rise.

Even so, this principle is still useful for everyone in the practice, and the money still works out well.

We can summarise this more refined version easily: delegate mercilessly! This isn’t either as selfish or penny-pinching as you might imagine. Delegation like this helps in three ways:

  1. All staff now work at the top of their expertise. There are two big benefits: everyone finds their jobs challenging, and therefore interesting; and the practice is getting value for money because it is paying for, and using, the top end of the skills that each of its staff possesses
  2. It is the most cost-effective use of payroll money and much cheaper than simply buying in an extra half-time PM
  3. No one is overloaded. Everyone leaves on time at the end of the day (except in true emergencies, of course). Staff remain fresh, motivated, and interested in their work. They feel respected and valued, too. They’re also earning at the top end of their potential, rather than feeling taken for granted.

A trap to avoid

Most of us like having times in the day for doing relatively mundane tasks, in between the more intensive ones. Because we don’t have to think quite so deeply about this type of work, it provides a welcome time of reduced mental effort. However, if everyone is constantly working at the top end of their abilities then they won’t have quite so many occasions when they can coast.

Therefore, when working intensively, everyone needs to get their full lunch and tea-breaks, and leave work on time, otherwise they’ll risk burning out.

Sharing the work

How should the PM distribute the work between the personal assistant and themselves? It depends if they simply want to move the volume of work around, or whether they want to upskill the personal assistant.

There are two equal and opposite methods.

  1. Divide out the tasks. The personal assistant only has to learn a proportion of the original PM’s job, instead of trying to become expert at everything. The downside is that if one of them does all the complex stuff in a particular subject area—say, HR—and an emergency arises in this area when they are on holiday, how does the practice cope?
  2. Share the tasks—but this inevitably means both of them have to keep up-to-date in everything, which can be time-consuming and stressful; this method releases far less routine time to the practice.

Perhaps the best solution is, in general, to divide up the tasks between them; but with anything mission-critical to ensure that both of them know enough in that area to be able to cope in a crisis until the other one returns.

What tasks do you delegate?

Think about the process of delegation that started with the PM and continued all the way to the half-time office junior. What determines which tasks should be delegated? (Remember this isn’t just about the PM and the personal assistant—it affects the entire sequence of staff as the delegation process cascades down the practice.)

So, as a starting point, consider what jobs you can do that others can’t. Are they mission-critical and should others be trained in these areas? If not, keep these jobs to yourself.

Now for the opposite question: what currently do you do that other people could do just as easily? Consciously think about delegating jobs like these—especially to less well-paid workers with fewer qualifications or less specialised expertise. The recipients are likely to thank you for this—because you’re entrusting them to do work at the upper end of their abilities, teaching them skills they previously haven’t had and pushing them to make the very best of their talents (providing, of course, that they don’t feel either that you have got rid of what should be your own work, or else have overloaded them).

There is a neat way to picture all of this: think of a glass column filled with a mixture of oil and water which is shaken up and then left to stand. The complicated jobs (the blobs of oil) slowly rise towards the top: the less complicated work (the water) sinks to the bottom. Actually it’s more subtle than this, in that each type of work ‘finds its own level’—but the principle remains the same: let the more complex stuff bubble upwards, to be dealt with by the higher-grade staff, while the less complex work gently sinks downwards, for lower-grade staff to perform.

Next in the series: using short periods of detailed preparation to deliver future savings

*Keep it simple stupid


Key points

  • Delegate work mercilessly—it’s good for everyone
  • Ensure that staff work at the top end of their abilities
  • Cascade the easier jobs down to others, if necessary hiring a minimally skilled worker for the most mundane work; as a result:
    • no one is overloaded
    • everyone works at the top end of their abilities
    • all staff find their work interesting and challenging
    • the practice is getting its money’s worth from those with higher abilities and qualifications.