Briefing and Nothingness: The Delegation Paradox

The theory goes something like this: Through the delegation of tasks, we can free up more of our time to think about strategy or creative concepts — to work on the things that really make a difference, and ultimately get more done.

When we combine that with the possibilities brought to us by the automation of previously manual tasks, we should have better information at our fingertips and more time to decide what to do with it.

But is this a theory inherently in conflict with itself?

What if the result of this process is a less skilled workforce, unable to relate to the processes behind their own work?

At the heart of these questions lies the bifurcation between the previously unified centers of authority and responsibility.

Let’s take an account manager at a digital agency as our example.

As the title suggests, they are accountable for the work done for their client. If there is an economic imperative for this work to be outsourced, they will end up briefing tasks to specialists, whether within the company or to outside freelancers. Where something can be automated cost-effectively, it will be.

It is then the responsibility of the ‘specialist’ to complete the work to the agreed standard.

There is already a tension here; the more knowledgeable party is on the receiving end of the brief.

What’s more, the specialist lacks accountability, so the desire to perform beyond expectations is diminished. The exchange is transactional, and accountability is never truly transferred.

One potential outcome is apparent: the specialists to whom the task is delegated may feel undervalued and frustrated by the parameters decided and defined by someone ill-equipped to define them.

The manager has no hold over the specialist, other than in the monetary terms tied to the satisfactory submission of the task.

Should the former have to complete the task themselves, they struggle to do so. The delegation that was intended to improve their capabilities has led to a weakening of their skills due to sheer lack of practical application.

This is not the fault of the manager — they become a product of an environment in which the mechanical churn of ‘deliverables’ is seen as the optimal use of their time.

A further level of remove is created when the task is outsourced to freelancers or other companies. Moreover, layers of admin are added as the manager is required to brief the task, check its quality and then familiarize themselves with its contents. This directly eats into that time earmarked for creativity and strategy.

This renders the manager a less reliable authority on the subject matter, so the ability to carry out the function of delegation effectively decreases further. The gatekeeper’s critical faculties are worn out over time, the standards slip.

In the Marxist sense of alienation, the worker is heavily involved in the process of creation, but ultimately distant from the product and the fruits of their labor.

What we end up with through an over-dependence on task delegation in our industry is the reverse: our account managers are removed from the processes, but accountable for the outputs. They are often, of course, detached from the rewards too.

This particular sense of alienation means that they are often accountable for their work, but not responsible for it. If the work is received positively, the account manager takes less pride — they didn’t do it, after all. If it is received negatively, they feel disillusioned — they didn’t do it, but they have to defend and explain it.

What matters here beyond basic job satisfaction is that the inherent paradoxes within this relationship lower the probability that the work will be of a high standard. This probability decreases the longer the relationship holds.

Undoubtedly, the digital marketing industry is in a perpetual state of re-definition due to the increasing impact of automation. Focusing on the benefits this can bring, it can of course reduce the amount of time spent by skilled employees on ultimately unskilled tasks. It can also supply them with useful information drawn from a wide array of data sources, potentially enabling better decisions.

The realization of these better decisions depends on the ability of the person responsible.

Percipient interpretation of data is a core capability for the digital expert, an honorific only earned after performing the component tasks repeatedly and to a high standard.

We undoubtedly depend on technology to extend our capabilities beyond our own intelligence on a quotidian basis. In fact, ‘extended intelligence’ is the phrase used with increasing frequency among MIT scientists in place of ‘artificial intelligence’, as its connotations are more reflective of the central role people play in this relationship with technology.

For this concept to function, it requires both the human and the mechanical to perform to their strengths. Conflation of these two interrelated, ever-converging, but still distinct arenas is a risk we run when we prize the mechanical within people.

The deep entrenchment of delegation and automation in our daily practices should therefore be approached judiciously. Their benefits are sometimes evident, but we could render ourselves less capable to avail of them if we do not disentangle the paradoxes resident in this new working relationship.

There is potentially a balance to be struck here, but the economic imperative that drives everything we do points to a less utopian conclusion — with company employees the likely losers.

Clark Boyd