The fine art of delegation
Nicola Hill, PMP, Thomson Reuters, London, England
BY MEREDITH LANDRY ▪ PHOTOS BY MARTIN BEDDALL
IF YOU WANT SOMETHING DONE RIGHT, YOU HAVE TO DO IT YOURSELF, RIGHT? NOT SO FAST.
For project managers, doing too much can lead to burnout, poor performance and a frustrated team. According to Everest College's 2012 Work Stress Survey, 73 percent of U.S. workers said they were stressed, with an “unreasonable workload” cited as one of the top four stressors. The answer to that overwhelming workload? Letting go of—or at least loosening the grip on—the reins.
Delegating project work is less about loading up team members with tasks and more about enabling them to develop and strengthen their skills, says Nicola Hill, PMP, senior project manager of news technology at business information provider Thomson Reuters in London, England.
“You need to identify people on the team who are ready to be stretched with new activities,” she says. “The decision on what to delegate ought to center on the development needs of team members.”
STRIKING THE RIGHT BALANCE
Effective delegation means finding the middle ground between trying to do it all and putting too much on team members' shoulders.
Voluntary attrition—quitting the team or the job—is a pretty solid indicator of over-delegation, says Matt Higgins, PMP, vice president of program management at VisionFoundry Incorporated, a custom software design and development company in Tysons Corner, Virginia, USA.
An overwhelmed team member may display signs of burnout such as making careless mistakes, missing deadlines, and being tardy or excessively absent, he says.
Ms. Hill recalls working with a project coordinator who was eager to gain some experience leading meetings. So Ms. Hill gave her what she thought was adequate training and then let her run with it. The result was an unsuccessful final installment in a series of technical workshops.
“She was too new to the project, and didn't understand enough of the technology and vocabulary,” Ms. Hill says. “In retrospect, I rushed to give her the experience before her contract ended and didn't think hard enough about what you need to become a good facilitator. Short-termism in delegation is not a good path to success.”
Conversely, an under-utilized member can be equally problematic. “Apathy—the result of boredom—can set in and lead a team member to seek more challenging projects or employment,” Mr. Higgins says.
To maintain balance between over- and under-delegating, project managers should ask for continuous feedback about team members' work levels and keep a close eye on status reports. That way, they can make any necessary changes before work-loads become problematic, says Linda Persson, PhD, PMP, senior project manager at Sony Mobile Communications AB in Lund, Sweden.
“IS THERE SOMEONE ELSE ON MY STAFF WHO CAN DO THIS TASK AT LEAST 70 PERCENT AS WELL AS I CAN? YES? THEN FARM IT OUT.”
—Nicola Hill, PMP, Thomson Reuters, London, England
Dr. Persson establishes a regular check-in procedure—a weekly meeting, for example—with each team member at the project's launch. “This way, I avoid disturbing them with the same questions [constantly]: ‘How's it going?’ ‘Do you need any support?’ ‘Anything I can do?’” she says.
WHO GETS WHAT
A project's success also depends on the leader's ability to leverage each team member's core competencies and align them with the tasks at hand. Mr. Higgins accomplishes this by conducting thorough résumé reviews and in-person interviews with team members prior to launch.
A necessary initial step is securing team members' buy-in for their specific tasks. At the beginning of a project's planning process, Dr. Persson creates a project specification table that includes a “roles and responsibilities” section.
“I see the project specification as a contract between the team members and me outlining how, by whom, what and when the project should be executed,” she says. “Before the project specification gets approved, it is reviewed by the team members, updated based on their feedback, and then aligned and agreed upon.”
WHO'S MOST STRESSED?
The percentage of workers in six different countries who feel “unreasonably stressed”:
Source: Stress: What's the Impact for Organisations?, Kenexa High Performance Institute. Results based on a four-year study of 60,000 workers in six countries.
4 STEPS TO DEVELOPMENT THROUGH DELEGATION
Challenge high-potential team members with more difficult tasks to develop their skills and gauge their competencies using these four steps:
1 Spot Shining Stars
“This starts with their attitude: positive body language and actions, enthusiasm, and demonstrating engagement through a willingness to challenge and contribute,” says Nicola Hill, PMP, Thomson Reuters, London, England. “The next indicator is delivery of what's initially expected of them in terms of timeliness and quality standards, followed by delivery of things beyond what was expected.”
Assign tasks that build on what the team member has already achieved, but add a more challenging component. Or task him or her with something completely new to provide an opportunity in an unfamiliar area. Either way, “try to make it incremental,” Ms. Hill says. “That's more effective than throwing someone in ‘at the deep end,’ which has a tendency to damage confidence.”
3Communicate the “Why”
Make sure team members understand why the bar is set a bit higher for them, and that their performance is being closely evaluated. Emphasize that any added responsibilities are an opportunity, not a punishment.
4Assess and Regroup
Should a team member not live up to expectations, talk to him or her in detail about it. “One lackluster performance doesn't make that person a write-off in terms of potential,” Ms. Hill says. “In the case of people who have been good performers in the past, it's more often a failure of management rather than the individual.”
IT'S ALL YOU
Successful delegation is also about finding the sweet spot between what the project manager does and doesn't need to handle. Ms. Hill, for instance, follows a 70-percent rule. “Is there someone else on my staff who can do this task at least 70 percent as well as I can? Yes? Then farm it out,” she says.
But just because a task could be passed off doesn't mean it should be. Mr. Higgins cites four types of tasks that should never be delegated:
“THE DECISION ON WHAT TO DELEGATE OUGHT TO CENTER ON THE DEVELOPMENT NEEDS OF TEAM MEMBERS.”
—Nicola Hill, PMP, Thomson Reuters, London, England
- Tasks for which the project manager is directly responsible
- Tasks that the project manager would be unwilling to complete his or herself
- Tasks that require a level of authorization that a team member does not possess
- Tasks for which the necessary tools are not available
Dr. Persson adds that delivering negative feedback to other team members is another job that's strictly the project manager's responsibility.
Likewise, if a project fails or a problem arises, the project manager must break the news. “It is inexcusable to send a delegate in that situation,” Ms. Hill says. “Plus, some people will only be satisfied if the message comes directly from you.”
To maintain their own sanity, project managers should avoid under-delegating. “Watch out for thoughts like, ‘Only I can do this,’ ‘It won't be done right' or ‘I'm drowning in work, and there's nothing I can do about it,’” Ms. Hill says. “If you find yourself thinking that, you should probably consider delegating more.” PM
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