The art of delegation

passing the batonjMost projects, even large ones, start out quite small. When the project is just an idea and you are developing the project brief, project request, terms of reference or whatever that first document is that signifies the birth of your project, there will be just a few people involved. And as the project manager you will have near total control and no need to delegate much, if anything.

Unless it is a very small project, things will not stay that way for long. Even in initiation, the size and volume of tasks will dictate that you can’t do it all yourself. If, like me, you often get brought in to take over a project or PMO the chances of you being able to manage all aspects of the project or PMO yourself are practically nil. This represents a special situation which we will come back to. For now, let’s assume you are in the situation where things are getting too big for you to realistically control everything yourself.

Reasons to delegate

I’ve known plenty of project managers, team leaders and line managers that micro manage. They are always looking over your shoulder, checking your work, making minor but pointless and irritating, changes to documents, e-mails and presentations. And that’s what it becomes – irritating. And it’s demotivating. It encourages people to become lazy – the boss will correct/change it anyway so why should I bother giving a 100%?

So now there are two good reasons to delegate. You can’t do everything, and it’s demotivating to your team if you don’t trust them to do things. There’s a third and even better reason. Your team might be better at the task than you! I don’t get involved in detailed planning very often because it’s not my strongest skill. I bring in a planning specialist and focus my energies on ensuring I input my knowledge of the project, its risks, issues and challenges, and the experience I have gathered from my career into the planning process. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you must or you should.

Good leaders recognise this and get their teams doing the tasks they’re good at. It really motivates the team and compensates for the tasks we all hate but have to do. As the old saying goes, “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”.

Making delegation work

When you have started something from scratch it can be hard to let go of some aspects of it. Will the people you delegate to do the job/task as well as you do? Will they do it just as you did? The answer (at least in the eyes of the delegator) is often no! It could be better, worse or different. Better is fantastic and really shows how to use the team to great effect. It might be hard to swallow and many inexperienced project managers get fearful when others do things better. Just remember is a sign, and a trait, of a successful leader when this happens.

Different is OK too. People have different ways of working, different styles etc. The key here is to not lunge back into micro management and insist it is done how you used to do it. Every task should have quality or success criteria. And if the new way of doing something delivers against those criteria then it’s fine. It being done your way is NOT one of those success criteria. Deep breath and let go…..

Worse could be a problem, but not always. If the success or quality criteria are still being met, take another deep breath and let it go. It could be you are just a perfectionist and you were actually wasting time and effort polishing something that didn’t need it. If it meets the criteria, good is good enough.

So the first step in delegating stuff successfully is delegating it, and leaving it delegated. Don’t look back, don’t interfere. That doesn’t mean wash your hands of the tasks, but don’t meddle. If things go wrong then fix them, preferably by help the delegate to understand how to do the task better.

The right people

To delegate with confidence you have to have the right people. You need people that are smart. Preferably smarter than you in the tasks or roles you are delegating. I employ smart planners because they’ll be better at planning than me. It can be challenging to surround yourself with smart people, especially when you are relatively inexperienced in managing people. You might be afraid they will outshine you and get promoted ahead of you. That’s why the next point is really important. For me, as an experienced independent, I always look to develop and encourage my team. It’s part of my value add to the client. They get better developed and well-rounded people in their permanent teams and more cost effective contractors. I get a bigger network of potential associates and future sources of work. 

The right culture

Projects are more successful if an organisation has a project culture. And a successful project culture has a number of key elements that promote and encourage delegation. It’s a culture where senior managers look to see if delegation is being effectively practiced and then openly reward it. This encourages the inexperienced manager to delegate because they know it will be recognised. That type of open, honest culture also discourages the playing of politics which is often the cause of angst amongst junior project managers. People that play politics get a warning and then get gone if they don’t heed it.

If you are in doubt, get your recognition in first. Discuss the delegations you are planning with your boss. Explain the benefits, the challenges and what you are trying to achieve. That way if Jonny-come-lately tries to score points later your boss knows he has only been able to succeed because you gave him the opportunity. If Jonny doesn’t see that you gave him the opportunity and be open about it his own recognition will be downgraded and devalued.

What delegation isn’t

Delegation isn’t an excuse to get rid of tasks you hate. If you are still the right or best qualified person to do the task, it should stay with you. It can really upset team dynamics if you delegate difficult or horrible tasks to your team. They’ll know when you’ve done it and respect you all the less for it. I once got delegated the task of informing a number of fellow contractor/consultants that their services had to be dispensed with because of cost cutting. The boss and permanent team managers didn’t have the stomach for it. They went down in the estimation of the rest of the team that stayed. It showed a lack of leadership in tough times.

The second thing delegation isn’t, is passing the buck. You can delegate tasks but you can’t delegate ultimate responsibility. You have to have the confidence in the people you delegate to that they can do the job. And they have to have the confidence that you will stand behind them when the going gets tough. If you don’t they will be reluctant to take on the tasks. Even if they do take them on, they will constantly refer back to you for approval to try and ensure you share in the blame/responsibility.

Delegating when taking over a project

When taking over a project you have two dilemmas. The chances are you will not know all, if any, of the team you inherit, so you don’t know who you can trust to delegate tasks to. Likewise, your predecessor will probably have delegated some tasks and you won’t know what these are of who they were delegated to. Even if you identify existing delegations, they might not be the things you would delegate or the people you might delegate to.

Taking back tasks could damage team moral. Not taking them back could jeopardise the project. You need to make a rapid assessment of your team and any existing delegations. In my own experience, unless you identify specific concerns I would leave existing delegations in place. Encourage your team to communicate progress so you can monitor how things are going. Also try and identify further tasks or responsibilities you can delegate so you can demonstrate to the team you are prepared to trust them.

Delegation, however small the steps or tasks, help to build your rapport with your new team. By observing how they handle the delegated tasks, you also start to get an insight in to their capabilities. I often give my team members the opportunity to take responsibility rather than wait for it to be given. Sometimes they can be hesitant to take things on or follow their own instincts, so I try to guide them to the answers rather than provide the answers.

In one instance, I was on leave for a few days and left my no.2 in charge – full delegation. He called me to say the team had identified a problem and he needed my help to resolve it. Rather than make the decision for him, I talked him through the analysis  and posed questions at each stage. At the end of the exercise he came up with the solution and said, “I probably didn’t need to call you, did I?” I replied that this time he needed the reassurance. Next time he would have the self-confidence to not need reassuring. It was a great all round win-win situation at the cost of a few minutes out of my day off.

What delegation successes and nightmares have you experienced? Leave a comment and share your experiences.

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