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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How We Delegate

     The boss sent me to a car dealership to collect an overdue debt.
     You know, of course, that you are not in the presence of naïvete when you’re at the car showroom. In this case, it also was not helpful that my purpose was to get the manager to part with cash for a service whose value had long since faded into a bygone time. The guy owed us for newspaper advertising we had published much earlier.
     Needless to say, I came back emptyhanded. “Well,” said the boss, “Did you ask them for use of a car, then?”

     No, boss, I hadn’t done that. If seeking use of a car indeed was a backup part of the delegated assignment, I could have given it a shot. But I had no reason to think it was. So, while I wasn’t much of a bill collector, the boss was a pretty poor delegator.
     If I had options, he should have told me. Actually, I think he just made that up about the car on the spot . . . after the fact.
     There’s another familiar practice by some senior managers. The directions given to a subordinate may be cloudy and/or incomplete, and the big guy/gal is not amenable to getting into detail. That’s your job, fella.
     So you figure it out and present your result. Turns out it most definitely is not what was intended at all. I often have suspected that the busy executive really hadn’t taken the time to think the matter through that far, and was using this exercise to clarify his/her own thinking.

     Granted, it’s not the executive’s job to plan out the full task for the delegatee. So what IS the senior partner’s responsibility in a delegation?
     As project managers, we’re delegating all the time. It’s the very name of the game. In this position, we also are on the receiving end of the process: We are asked to lead a process of taking the organization’s intent from idea/need/problem into highly specific activities. We’re committed.
     We use a hefty amount of corporate talent, money and time on a whole series of bets in our planning – basically, an extensive web of guesses, hopefully educated ones – to produce a unique result. “Unique” means we’ve never seen it before, which is why it’s a project and why there is plentiful uncertainty and lots of risk.
     Those who appoint project managers, and put valuable assets at their disposal, are right to be concerned about the prospects of success or disaster. The project managers themselves, recognizing the weight of their responsibility, are right in their own concern about all the project responsibilities and tasks they are delegating to their team members.
     Healthy organizations have the confidence and skills to correctly calibrate the risks and prepare their people to handle them. Well-trained managers and team members can carry projects breaktakingly close to the lip of catastrophe, and earn the rewards that come from knowing how to pull off high achievement there.

     When we don’t see mature organizations and confident, competent project management, what do we see?
     The process can go off the rails – or never get on the track at all – in a number of ways. We’re all familiar with them. Some managers dump projects and problems on their juniors and walk away, believing they have tossed the responsibility. They haven’t.
     When you delegate anything at all, you must pass with it the authority required to accomplish it, but you retain the responsibility for it. While the delegatee is now responsible to you, you remain fully responsible for what that person does.
     It is not unusual in these dumping cases that the delegated authority is inadequate, and the dumper has no intention of stepping in to provide it when it’s needed. A recipe not only for failed projects, but also for an alienated workforce.
     At the other end of the delegating disaster spectrum is the familiar do-it-yourself disease. This often has a perfectionism companion ailment, and can infect general hiring and supervision as well as project management and single-task delegation.
     Here you have the veteran subject-matter expert boosted into management, busily producing excellent sole-contributor output while everybody else leans on their shovels and provides admiring witness.

     When delegation is done properly, really properly, it covers a very broad range of organizational process and individual behavior.
     First off, the organization institutionalizes delegation as an essential managerial function. The best of the many Organizational Project Management Maturity Models emphasize the communication and leadership skills essential to delegation. Effective organizations have their people undergo continuing training in those “soft” skills.
     The delegator’s efforts in doing delegation should start before there even is a second party, the delegatee. Situation analysis: Why is this matter being delegated? What will it take to make sure it is completed properly? What abilities must the eventual delegatee have?
     Once the delegatee is chosen, the handoff is thorough and specific. The delegator shares with the designated person a full description of the current situation, the desired result and the issues of the project as they are known at that time.
     Equally important is a two-way agreement on the extent and limits of the delegation, as well as the communication plan: How often and in what way will the two communicate? What are the factors that might require unscheduled communication between the two?
     The delegatee carries out the project. The delegator never leaves the process.
     Delegation is teamwork: Two parties sharing responsibility for an outcome. As with all teamwork, an absolutely vital ingredient is trust. Each party must have total expectation that the other will do what he/she promised (or communicate if something gets in the way).

     So, when you ask someone to do something, make sure there’s full understanding, agreement and a sharing of responsibility. And don’t make up stuff afterwards.


Don't Delegate? Can't Manage

Getting People  to Do Stuff

(For additional related posts, click on "Delegating" in the right-hand column on the home page.)


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