On Delegation

Delegation for managers

Though my lessons come from an IT background, I have a strong belief that these hold good in most fields of work. We are moving towards a workforce that is increasingly specialized. 10 years ago, you would have had a developer who was capable of design, development and testing of code. Today, you wouldn’t dream of starting a project without a specialized design team, a focussed testing team etc. To imagine that a single manager would be able to manage and run each of these sub-groups in a project team is a bit of a stretch. A lot of sub-ordinate roles have come up to assist project managers in this new world. Today, we have test managers, tech leads, lead architects etc.It is fashionable to call these people techno-functional (though I hardly understand what that term means !). At the core, each of these roles is formed by the manager delegating part of his authority to someone from each of the specialized teams. e.g. you could say that the tech lead is someone from the development team who has been delegated management responsbility of the development activities by the project manager.

So how do you, as a manager, delegate work to sub-ordinates ? Like I said earlier, I have tried to capture my perceptions here as an IT project manager. I believe that these perceptions fit into other fields of work as well. So, here goes:

Why do managers want to delegate:

When I took over my first project as a manager, I had a thrill run through my body! I was the boss, after spending years being a sub-ordinate. But with time came the realization that I was responsible for the actions of others. If someone from my team made a mistake, or behaved unprofessionally, I was asked to answer for that. That is when I understood why managers want to make sure their sub-ordinates do not stray from the manager’s instructions. Every mistake a sub-ordinate makes adds up on the list of the boss. So, why would a manager want to give away some of his authority to a sub-ordinate ?

1) Things get too technical, managers do not have specific knowhow about the task at hand:

It happened when one of the tasks on my project was too technical for me. Though I was reading up on the technology, it just wasn’t enough to keep up with the task. I had to allow someone from my team to take over. Big as my ego is, I managed to allow someone else to be boss till the task was done.

This happens in all fields. In the movies, the director delegates the shooting of action scenes to an action director. He delegates the music scoring to the music director. Those are not his areas, and it is easier for someone else to take over.

2) Too little time to run after everything:

This could sometimes become an excuse for being lazy. But, this is more sensible than it sounds. For example, in one project, we had multiple activities running together: development of new code, testing of developed code, production support for customers, capturing requirements for the next release etc. There was no way I would have managed to give each activity its due attention. I had to delegate. More suitable examples for this come from the construction business where the top manager will never have the time to devote to all the things happening at the construction site. Flooring at some levels, concreting at others, painting for newly developed walls, approvals for the government authorities, plumbing arrangements….the list is endless. Even though the top manager would have the knowhow to handle each task, he would be simply over-whelmed if he chased up each activity on his own.

3) Too lazy to handle responsibilities:

To be honest, this is the single biggest reason most managers delegate. I saw this happening with myself. In one of my projects, we had customer calls scheduled late into the evening since the customers were located in UK. After the first few days, I was sick of waiting for the calls everyday. So, I took advantage of my authority as a manager and …delegated. I realize now that it violated a few of the most vital rules of delegation (which I will explain a little later).

It is a general perception that the more authority a person is given, the lazier he becomes. While this is not always true, it is not always wrong either.

4) Scared of handling tough situations:

Again, a personal example to illustrate this: We were asked to attend a weekly meeting to report status to top management. When the project started getting into delays (not always the team’s fault), we were asked more and more questions. After sometime I realized that whenever some questions were expected in those meetings, I would find an excuse to delegate someone from my team to attend these meetings on my behalf. When I realized this, it shook my ego like nothing before. I took great pains to fix this situation from thereon.

Most managers do not take the effort to avoid such situations. In my favourite sport, cricket, I have set a benchmark to identify strong captains. When the team is under the pump, I have noticed that some captains will push themselves down the order, or take themselves out of the bowling attack. These are managers who are too scared to face difficult situations and they use their power to delegate this task to others.

5) Bored of doing something:

There have been countless instances from my own career where I have delegated routine chores to people who did not have the choice to say no. Updating weekly status reports, documenting minutes of meeting, setting up calls…all in the name of giving someone the chance to learn about project management ! Some people have not appreciated this.

There is nothing wrong in this per se. It is important that the manager gets the time to devote to more strategic activities. But that cannot always be done at the expense of someone else.

Why do sub-ordinates want to take up delegated responsibilities ?

I read somewhere that to become a manager, you have to start behaving like one. The easiest way of taking over your boss’ position is to start doing his work. I did not always follow this (for fear of ending up with too much work on my plate — I have never liked work too much !). But I have seen many an ambitious bloke follow this and readily fall victim to my delegating ways !

1) Want to impress the boss:

Some folks have the idea that if you offer to help out the boss with his work (no matter what that work is) you will be rewarded, you will become his blue-eyed boy. This works with some bosses, doesn’t with others. But in either case, it gives the boss a good feeling that there is someone around to share his workload without asking for a share in his pay-packet !

2) Want to learn new things:

Believe it or not, I do have a career-plan. So, I am not surprised that there are millions of others who have one too. Some people want to learn the art (or is it science ?) of management. They believe that the best way to learn that is to do the work that your boss does. So, they offer to help their boss with his work. This is a noble aim. The problem with this (for the boss) is that these ambitious blokes do not take anything that the boss throws at them. They are choosy about the kind of work they will help with. This can become an annoyance if not handled properly. e.g. I had this one person in my team who wanted to help but would never show up when I asked him to do mundane work. If there was a planning session or a client meeting, however, he would be running to join in !

3) They feel they are the best people for the job:

This is the best way for the whole delegation thing to work out. I have had instances from my projects where one of my team members has just grabbed the work from my hand because he felt he was the best person to handle this job. I felt great handing over to him because there was conviction in his voice and purity in his intentions.

Sparks fly when the right person puts his hand up for the job and does it with gusto. It is important for the manager to recognize the fire in the eyes (and the belly) in the right person. If this is not recognized early, the moment may pass and an opportunity to identify a new leader would be gone for ever.

4) Want to take more responsibilities:

This is a variation on the 3rd point (above). There have been people in my projects who were extremely ambitious and extremely capable. I have realized that handing over the reins to such people was the best thing to do. I have also realized that this is the best way for any organization to groom future leaders. Organizations (and managers, on the behalf of organizations) need to recognize and reward ambition suitably.

Delegation ground rules:

Delegation is not always easy and not always the right thing to do. So, how do we ensure this is done correctly and efficiently ?

1) You can delegate authority, not responsibility:

A rule that I learnt from one of the best bosses I ever had. A manager has two things in his pocket: responsibility and authority. Organizations need to ensure that the responsbility-authority balance is right at each level in the work force to ensure people can do their job competently. However, when managers delegate, it is only authority that they can delegate. The manager cannot delegate responsibility. It is just not acceptable.

In the example that I gave earlier where I was trying to find excuses to get out of meetings, I was delegating the responsibility (accountability) to a sub-ordinate. This is not acceptable since this responsbility is inseperable from my role as the manager. Some people have gone to the extent of saying that managers earn their salary purely on the accountability they are expected to show. The higher the responsbility, the heavier the pay-packet. If a manager wants to get rid of his responsibilities, it is time for the organization to get rid of him too.

2) Do not vanish after delegation:

I observed this both as a manager and as a sub-ordinate. Managers delegate work and then they leave the poor guy all alone. When people take up responsibility that does not come as a default part of their job description, they need time to learn, someone to answer their questions, to teach and guide them and they need to luxury of making a few mistakes. When the boss vanishes after delegating, all the above luxuries vanish too.

As a manager, when you delegate, make sure you are around to answer questions and generally help out. But, more important than anything else, make sure you are around to step in when there are problems. Make your team-mate feel secure in the knowledge that he is allowed a few mistakes. This will help both of you in the long run.

3) Judge well before you delegate:

Not every team-member is ready to take up responsibility. Personally, I have followed the general rule that I will not delegate unless someone asks for additional work. Even then, I have been careful to ensure I made the right choice of person and task. This person-task mapping is extremely important. Not everyone can do everything. People have their specialities and their preferences. Also, some people are more sensitive to failure than others. Ensure you pick the right person for the right job at the right time.

e.g. I once delegated production support management work to a team-member just 1 day before the application went into production. The result was that I had to step in on the first day of production support. I had failed to give the person time to understand his new role. I had made the right choice of person and task but failed at the important act of timing !

4) Delegation should add value:

When managers delegate, the most important drivers are usually laziness (on the manager’s part) or eagerness to impress (on the part of the team-member). These are the wrong reasons for delegation. When these are the drivers for delegation the result is that neither the manager, nor the team-member gains in the long run.

Delegation was introduced into the organization structure primarily as a grooming tool. It should be used to that end (as much as possible). Talk to your team and find out what their hopes and aspirations are. Ensure that you find the right tasks for each of them and make sure the delegated tasks add value to their bigger career plans. Find a way to measure if this is working in the right direction. The best way to measure is to have regular chats with the team to understand what they feel about the tasks delegated to them. Do they find them fulfilling ? Are they learning something ? Are these tasks adding value to their careers ? etc

As a manager, my biggest satisfaction has come from the fact that I have given the organization leaders to replace me. Someone once told me that the best way to go up in the organization is to make sure that your boss goes up too. I will add to that by saying that the best way to get credit as a leader in the organization is to help create leaders around you.

I will hope that this has helped at some level. Please do let me know your comments.


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