We were just coming back from lunch, taking our seats in the circle once again. The leadership seminar that we were all attending was about to resume. As we assembled, we were chatting among ourselves (as you do). The topic of delegation came up.
“Delegation is overrated,” I said, shaking my head.
The faces around me registered a mix of surprise and shock. Belatedly I remembered that these folks didn’t know me, hadn’t seen me lead. They may have thought that I was a control freak unable to let go of even minute details. “Learn to delegate” is one of the traditional pieces of management advice. It’s sacred wisdom and I’d committed blasphemy.
Internally I groaned, regretting my comment. The session was about to start. I had not intended to derail the discussion or take attention away from the workshop leader. I tried to explain using as few words as possible.
The intent behind delegation is laudable. If a leader is trying to do everything themselves, they’ll quickly become a bottleneck and hamstring their organization. They may also irritate their team members by doing all the interesting work themselves. So a leader who does not know how to delegate at all will be wholly ineffective.
However, the conventional wisdom lacks needed detail. Just learning how to hand out work won’t necessarily make your team more successful. In fact, shifting from an attitude of if-I-want-it-done-right-I-have-to-do-it-myself to I-delegate-by-personally-handing-out-assignments-to-individuals probably won’t improve the situation much.
A leader who delegates to individuals may be freeing up their time to take on more strategic work, but they’ll still be a bottleneck for the organization. If the leader is the primary source of work for the team members, team members will only end up doing the most valuable or important work if the leader has had the time and space to correctly identify what that work is. Thus the organization can only operate as fast as the leader can make decisions about what to do next.
Further, in this model the leader is the “head” while the team members are the “hands.” That means team members are limited in what they can contribute. The organization is not able to benefit from the full range of their talents, and they don’t have much in the way of growth opportunities.
In short, the concept of delegation focuses entirely on the leader rather than on the team doing the actual work. In doing so, it simultaneously places too much burden on the leader and short changes the team members.
That’s about as far as I got in my explanation before the facilitator for the leadership workshop brought us back to the topic for the day. The folks around me looked skeptical but accepting of my heresy.
I wish I’d had time to provide just a little more detail. If I had, I would have continued my explanation with a reframe: instead of delegating to individuals, lean on your team. You want your team to do the work with you instead of for you.
This advice applies whether you manage a team of individual contributors, or a team of leaders.
As the leader, you set the goals. “Here’s what we’re trying to do,” you might say. Or “here’s the problem we’re trying to solve.” You define success for near term goals as well as establishing the direction of the larger arc of work.
Of course you don’t do this unilaterally. You yourself are part of a leadership team, and you work closely with your colleagues to ensure that the goals your team is pursuing are aligned with the larger organizational strategy.
Your team also needs to have a voice in the goal setting. Just because you want something doesn’t mean your team can deliver. So you work with your team to understand what they believe is feasible, and use their feedback in setting concrete (and possibly measurable) objectives.
You also define the constraints in which your team must operate. Perhaps you have a budget or a timeline, or perhaps there are aspects of the problem space that have been pre-determined, for example the technology stack or something about a the existing context that must be preserved.
You explain why the goals are important and why the constraints matter. Understanding the significance of the work is as important—sometimes more so—than understanding the work to be done.
So instead of learning to delegate, I challenge rising leaders to learn how to do these four things:
- Establish goals
- Define constraints
- Explain the Why
- Trust the team
When the people on your team have a full understanding of the context for their work—the goals and constraints and significance—they can bring all their talents, skills, and experience to play. The result is that team members will be more engaged, and working together they will produce work that is far richer than they would deliver if everyone worked independently.