By Joel Dignam
Recently delegation has been a bit weaker in my workplace. I’ve been guilty of this a bit myself, but I’ve also observed delegation between other team members also being weaker than it could be. This has prompted me to re-read the excellent notes on delegation in Alison Green’s and Jerry Hauser’s Managing to Change the World; I’ve decided to summarise them for my own learning, for the benefit of my team, and for your benefit too!
Guide more, do less.
The top-line point for managers that they offer is this: guide more, do less. The pitfall they are trying to address is that managers who neglect the guidance stage then feel compelled to get more involved in the doing stage.
What they propose instead is that managers should be more hands-on when it comes to the initial stages of a project, around setting expectations and getting a clear shared understanding of purpose and direction. But then managers should be less hands-on when it comes to actually doing the work itself.
For this, they suggest the “delegation cycle”, involving a handful of steps:
- Agree on expectations.
- Stay engaged.
- Create accountability and learning.
- Adapt to fit the context.
You could remember these steps using the handy mnemonic “Asc-a” as in “Questions about delegating? Ask a way!”
Agree on expectations
What does success look like?
The initial stages in delegating are very important and really set the scene for later success or failure. A manager’s role here is to make sure that the person taking on ownership of the task understands
- what they are meant to do,
- who should be involved,
- when it’s due,
- why it matters, and
- how they should approach the work.
What you’re trying to do here is ‘make the implicit explicit’: take what’s in your head, often unspoken and inchoate, and render it into words. A useful question to ask yourself can be ‘what does success look like?’, using this to explore your assumptions and bring them to the surface.
Other useful tools can be using examples or samples, or even providing a template (eg, the section headings to use in a final report).
Even if you’re crystal clear on your expectations, communication is a tricky process, so the authors recommend a repeat-back: the person who is being delegated to listens, asks questions, and then says what they understand the task to be. This is a great way to cross-check understanding! The repeat-back could be verbal or written.
The most common way that managers stuff up delegation is by failing to remain engaged through the life of the project. Step two in the delegation cycle addresses this: stay engaged!
While the manager is no longer the owner of the project, you’re still the manager, and you need to have a system for checking in and monitoring progress. If things aren’t going well, you want to know before the final deadline, and I’d say that it’s the early stages of the work where it’s most important to check that things are on track, as these will determine the trajectory of the rest of the work.
They suggest things like checking in with the staff member or reviewing interim work. This latter option I find particularly valuable: before someone writes a whole draft, have them draft part of it and review that. This is going to save a lot of pain and frustration – it’s also easier to give critical feedback if someone hasn’t yet invested as much time and energy.
It can also be good to identify interim steps and use this to facilitate ongoing engagement: if an important event is happening in four weeks, interim steps might include a recruitment plan or a draft agenda, and these are opportunities to review and check on progress before it’s all too late.
If you’re being delegated to, you can also help with this! Some managers aren’t so good at delegation; you could take it on yourself to identify interim milestones and communicate these with your manager, or take the initiative to say something like “here’s a draft to show you how my thinking is going so far – if you have any feedback please let me know before next Monday, because that’s when I plan to fill out the rest of the sections.”
Create accountability and learning
Reflect on your projects!
At the end of the project cycle, check-in on how it went. I feel that what Green and Hauser are trying to avoid here is a situation where the delegation didn’t go well, the end result was poor, the manager feels bad about their own delegation but also the outcome, and so it’s all a bit embarrassing and there’s no transparent reflection and learning.
Don’t let this happen to you! At the earliest delegation stages you can plan in a brief evaluation meeting, and this can be used to reflect on the project and what the worker learnt, as well as any meta-lessons around delegation and what can make the management relationship work better.
Evaluation like this is an emphatic indication that the work actually matters – whereas sweeping it under the carpet implies it was always a pointless waste of time. It’s also, of course, an opportunity to celebrate and acknowledge good work.
Sim B. Sitkin argues that success can be a liability because we miss out on the impetus to reflect critically on a project and identify lessons like what aided the success, or what could have gone even better.
So reflect on your projects! Success or failure, there’s always space to learn.
Adapt to fit the context
The final idea in the ‘delegation cycle’ is that the cycle is not one-size-fits-all: your amount of engagement and intervention as a manager should be tailored to the situation.
Considerations here are the “skill” of the delegate, ie their abilities, and their “will”, or what they like or dislike. Two other considerations relate to the project, not the delegatee: how difficult it is, and its importance. Obviously if an employee with low skill and low will is responsible for an important and difficult project, the manager should be very hands-on (or maybe not delegate this to someone else, if at all? This sounds like a recipe for disaster!). In the inverse case, of a very skilful and willing employee taking on an easy and unimportant bit of work, the manager is less needed (although, again, maybe this person should be given more worthwhile work!).
As with so many things, there’s a lot of benefit in just communicating transparently and honestly within a team. Learn to be honest about where delegation succeeds or fails, and learn to work together to strengthen processes and build trust.
Putting in more effort earlier on can pay off even for a single piece of work; over time it can build staff capacity and independence for even better results.
And lucky for you, The Management Centre offers an excellent ‘delegation worksheet’ that helps to put Step 1 into effect. Recently I’ve been using this worksheet when handing projects to employees, and it’s truly excellent. It’s not a substitute for the process above, but an excellent complement to it, and will help you to begin putting these ideas into practice.
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- Notes on “Managing to Change the World”