Stoic Philosopher Epictetus

Unpacking Delegation — Part 2

In Part 1, I presented a simple definition of delegation with a user-story, illustrating the essences. In this post, we are going to get a bit more philosophical and focus on a requisite skill dealing with the ability to change your perspective.

Mutating the “Trichotomy of Control”

When you ride a bike with someone for 2–3 hours, you get talking and it goes beyond chit-chat. My friend is extremely well-read on topics of philosophy and history and especially good with distilling that information into lessons we can apply for today’s challenges. On one such bike ride where we had probably climbed 4000-feet over 40 miles (100-feet of elevation per mile was our standard measure of ride “goodness”), he introduced me to a key Stoic philosophical tenet which is the understanding of “what is and what is not within our control” — known simply as the “Dichotomy of Control” (DoC). The premise of DoC is that one can find fulfillment by observing and accepting events as either being under our control or not.

DoC is great, but it’s a bit “binary” and requires breaking things down into more granular units in order to model the actual state of things, especially a complex event. A modern philosopher by the name of William Braxton Irvine aims to refine this tenet with a slightly less binary interpretation by adding a third classification of events which is “Those we have some control (influence) over”.

This is the “Trichotomy of Control” (ToC)

Now before we jump to a quick conclusion that “accepting” things which you have limited control over is the mind-shift required to properly delegate, we need to recognize an important twist. First let us define some terminology

  • Event — This can be a thing, a process, an initiative, a project, a sunrise. Its the thing you’ll delegate actually
  • Property — This is the controllability property of the event as it relates to you (no control, influence, full control)

We might immediately observe that a given event has an immutable property. For example, you have no control to make the sun rise or set. Nor do you have any choice to elect control. On the other hand, you are in complete control of the words that you utter yet, you cannot yield control to someone else. These are intrinsic and immutable properties.

DoC and ToC teach us to accept events we cannot control (or have influence), and specifically the immutability of the properties of such events.

Delegation of an event requires a mutation of its property (our perception of controllability). When we talk about projects, teams, initiatives, these do not constitute events which have an intrinsic or immutable property. They start life as things you perceive to control, but to delegate control, you must mutate the property and change this perception. After this mutation, there is a new reality that you must not only accept, but a reality that you find fulfilling.

This is in fact the mental-shift required. An election to change the perception of controllability as it relates to you and and the delegate. It has to be a mental shift as opposed to just going through motions. Trying to reclaim or reverse the mutation sets you down the micro-management spiral and complete breakdown of trust that would lead to future delegations being suspect. This is actually why I use the term mutate because it implies something irreversible.

The term “mutate” is apt because it implies something “irreversible”

In order to help you make this mental shift, always go back to the “why” in the user-story of delegation. The “why” I chose (described in Part 1) was “so that innovation and people can thrive”. This is the higher cause that should give you inspiration to want to make this mutation of ToC.

Delegation does not mean you stop caring or being involved in some way. It is just a role or perspective change. To further illustrate this, consider the difference between directly working on the “thing” versus working on improving conditions for the “thing” to thrive under the leadership of the delegate, perhaps by providing tools, funding, coaching or garnering support of executives. There is a lot of room for fulfillment in that influencing role (watching people thrive is by far my favorite).

There are of course other conditions under which a successful mutation of the ToC can occur. These conditions are the core areas we’ll continue to cover in this series of posts.

ToC is a great framework for providing us the necessary state for getting fulfillment in the influencing of things we have delegated. Being fulfilled in this state voluntarily is in fact a leadership ability.

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