Friday 4 September 2009

Delegation from the other side

I really like Manager Tools - it's probably the best single source of personal development material that you're ever going to find bundled in easy to consume episodically content. Recently I thought I'd go back and listen to the basics series again, because you can never spend too much time on the fundamentals of good management and, like Mark and Mike say, if you don't do anything else except those basic practices, you'll probably do OK.

It was a really good refresher, and worthwhile doing from time to time. Then I got to the juggling koan cast, which was about how to handle that inevitable situation when your boss gives you another big task to work on when you're already maxed out with too much to do. It's worth listening to - so I won't spoil it entirely - except to say that the answer focuses on developing your delegation muscles, passing on some of your things to make space for the new action and helping your team to grow as an nice side effect.

The majority of the cast focused on how to handle events after you accept this new delegated responsibility, and I liked the point about deliverables gaining size as they flow down the delegation tree (i.e. your small tasks are bigger challenges for more junior members of your team), however I think there was a valuable lesson here about the delegation from the recipient's perspective.

The Manager Tools perspective on this was to accept the new delegation, and to view it as the expression of confidence and trust and the development opportunity that it really is. Many new managers would worry about whether they have the time to take it on or not (no thanks boss) or attempt to enter into a negotiation about what else to drop.* The reason I like this angle is that I don't think there is enough coverage out there on followership.

Leadership is glamorous and fashionable to write about and speak on, so we do a lot of it, but good followership is important to develop too. There is an inherent responsibility on all the individuals in an organisation to be rational participants, and I think a group who know and practice the right behaviors on both sides of that equation performs better. Anyway, isn't part of what we're doing when we're developing our people just cultivating better followership?

Something I'd suggest you ponder when you listen to the cast is clarifying the difference between being handed an action and given responsibility for an outcome. There was heavy emphasis on not entering into negotiations with your boss about whether or not you are going to take this thing on, however I think it's both valid and valuable to question the task and look for the underlying business value.

This isn't arguing about whether or not you or your department have the time, or forcing your boss to manage your priorities for you, it's simply clarifying what you're really being expected to achieve rather than what you're being asked to do. In my experience, particularly because I run technical departments, there is often a difference between what people want to achieve and what they initially ask for, as they think they have resolved the outcome they have in mind into a few actions and sometimes those actions don't add up.

If you can have that sort of open discussion, then you might agree to accept delegation of a slightly different task than was first put your way, but one that much more directly leads to the goal your boss really had in mind.

* Key caveat here about dropping stuff. Things will eventually be dropped, and when you're handling the most important things you can and have delegated the rest then so will your directs, and therefore [due to the hierarchical effect created when everyone delegates their least critical things] what gets dropped should eventually be the least important tasks overall.

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