If you walk in a straight shot across my parents’ back yard in the tropics, you run the risk of walking into, then bouncing off, the formidable web of the golden orb spider. A grand mistress of physics and geometry, orb weavers build three-dimensional sheet webs up to 4ft in diameter, with guidelines running several more feet, usually in whatever direction you were planning to walk.
It’s quite an undertaking for her, especially since the web is unbelievably strong. However, once built, the web can stay up for weeks at a time, catching every delicious morsel that happens by. When that happens, she pounces, incapacitates and eats the fresh cuts that are the spoils of her labor.
But here’s where things get interesting: The orb weaver is special, in that she tolerates a posse of smaller spiders, including several potential suiters, to take up residence in her web. In exchange for her leftovers – the crunchy offal of a desiccated cicada, perhaps – these smaller spiders patch up her web, freeing stuck twigs and mending sections that aren’t worth her effort to rebuild but which sustain the integrity of the whole. These wildly successful setups, rare even in the arachnid world, are called spider “communities.” Cool, huh?
What does this have to do with managing people? Everything. The female orb weaver is displaying what efficiency consultants call unique suitability, that is: The thing that only you can do well. The orb weaver is great at building the web. She finds the perfect place, makes the guidelines and builds a strong and fruitful net. Patching up the web, however, she is not uniquely suited to do. The smaller spiders who are benefiting from her framework are uniquely suited to do that work, and she should let them do it so she can better prepare for the next big build.
Managers should be closely attune to what they alone can do well – not just because of skill or experience but also role, standing and access. They should also know the unique suitabilities of each of their staff. Importantly, managers need to know how to discern between the two and resist taking on work that they are not uniquely suited to do. The orb weaver belongs at the center of her web, aware of everything that is happening in it and able to take action when prey is caught. The success of the whole community depends on it.
So next time you are delegating and you think to yourself: “It’ll be better/quicker/easier if I just do this myself,” ask yourself instead: Is there something else I am better suited to do? Invariably, there is. So get to it!