Project Management Institute

Power to the people



justly or not, delegating is stuck with a bad reputation. To the cynic, it can come across as the slacker boss trying to pawn off unwanted tasks on the long-suffering team. At the same time, leaders worried about their power ranking may not be eager to relinquish any of their more significant deliverables. There's that gnawing uneasiness that no one can do the job as well as they can, or worse, someone could do it better—and stakeholders will notice.

“The classic fear is someone will ask, ‘What does the project manager do now if he or she is not doing all of the planning and decision-making? Just buying pizza and keeping out of the way?’” says Mike Griffiths, PMP, an independent consultant in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and head of Leading Answers, a blog on leadership and agile project management. “Of course that isn't the case, but we have to address the fear that if we allow the team a lot more freedom, we're eroding the walls of project management.”

Understanding their roles as conduits should help quell some of those fears. “As project managers, we don't always add value in the actual implementation of software or in the actual construction of a building,” he says.

And that's okay.

“Even if I had the time to be everywhere at once, I wouldn't necessarily have the best skill set to fill all of a project's functions,” says Deverick McIntyre, PMP, senior project manager at Infosys, Beijing, China. “I heavily depend on team members to be experts in their fields, to perform work, provide input and allow me to do my job.”


Of course, project leaders have to have confidence that their teams can actually get the job done. That trust comes from knowing the individual team members—and knowing more than what shows up on a résumé. Talking to people about their experiences and goals allows leaders to delegate wisely.

But gaining insight into true team talents can be more difficult when working with inherited staff. Last year, Fred von Graf, PMP, took on the role of vice president of technology at FWF Productions LLC, Phoenix, Arizona, USA.

On one project, one of his new team members was an expert on the software his group was handling, so Mr. von Graf delegated the authority to run that part of the project.

“Then I got a lot of feedback that while the elevated team member was a great developer, he wasn't good with people,” he says.

Because Mr. von Graf had established a culture of open communication at the onset, other team members came to him quickly with the feedback and he was able to put the right person in charge. And the original team lead was content to go back to his core strength.

“It wasn't ideal to have to go through the learning process on a time-sensitive project, but it was a good experience,” Mr. von Graf says.

TIP Share the power. “The hidden message when you don't empower someone is that you don't trust them. Performance and morale go down.”


One way to cater to individuals' strengths—and avoid saddling someone with unwanted responsibility—is to let teams organize themselves around particular tasks.

“I try not to interfere too much and to give people a chance to try things,” Mr. Griffiths says. “We find that people step up when they feel qualified to do a certain task, so rather than dictating, I like to share what needs to be done and let people self-organize.”


The most obvious benefit to delegating is that it helps get the job done. But it can also help groom promising up-and-comers.

“As they grow, they can take on more responsibility,” says Lisa Symons, the Austin, Texas, USA-based head of Symon Says Communications and a 20-year veteran of global IT projects. “When people see they have a career path and a future, they are apt to grow into leadership roles and go the extra mile.”

Yet, as compelling as it sounds, a team of leaders all too often results in disaster. If not properly managed, sharing too much responsibility can spark in-fighting, role confusion—and sometimes even a project's demise.

Teams often function with a delicate balance of power, and when one person steps up and assumes more responsibility, that scale can tip. Suddenly, people may have to take orders from someone once on the same level. Resentment can fester. To help maintain harmony and ensure empowered team members gain the respect of their peers, project managers should try to be open about their decisions.

“Let the whole team know if someone is growing into a role and will have more responsibility,” Ms. Symons says. “List the benefits for the individuals who are not doing that task—such as increased time for other aspects of the project or increased access to a team leader—and explain that this is for the good of the team and the project.”


Delegating responsibilities can help project leaders deal with time-zone and cultural issues when teams are scattered around the globe. But they still need to keep an eye on what's happening—even if it's half a world away.

It's tough to get more global than Deverick McIntyre, PMP, Infosys. And he's quite familiar with the fine art of delegating across borders. On his current project, he has four Chinese consultants and four Indian consultants on site in Beijing, consultants at the U.S. client site and an offshore team based in India.

Given the multinational crew, the project is essentially running 24 hours a day. Mr. McIntyre obviously can't juggle it all, so he has to set some priorities—and hand off some tasks.

“Myself and the on-site consultants delegate much of the behind-the-scenes work to the India offshore project manager and consultants, to allow us more face time with the client to resolve issues and seek information or clarifications,” he explains.

Project leaders without the cultural expertise or language skills to navigate a multinational team may have no choice but to delegate. That's where an experienced local team member can help, says Lisa Symons, Symon Says Communications.

But she does add one caveat: “If you depend too heavily on one individual, you may only get his or her opinion and may not be getting the whole story.”

If a team member rebels against the decision, the project lead has to ask why. Sometimes that may take some digging. Did the person want the job? Is there a personal issue that's not out in the open? Putting the right team member on the right task is all about communication and intimate knowledge of group dynamics.

TIP There are limits to delegating. No matter how competent your team and how high your level of trust in them, some tasks shouldn't be passed off, says Mike Griffiths, PMP, Leading Answers. That taboo list includes reporting bad news to project sponsors and disciplining and rewarding members of the team.


To help team members accept an unlikely leader, Mr. Griffiths recommends delegating responsibility based on a person's ability rather than title. He recalls that while working on a recent project using a machine that builds code, a team member thought he'd figured out a better process and asked for time and help to execute his idea.

“He was actually quite junior, but people could see that if his theory worked, it would help the project, so they respected his efforts and supported him as he tried his idea,” Mr. Griffiths says. “He had a passion for improving this, so we encouraged him. Sure enough, he got it working.”


As tempting as it sounds, delegating doesn't mean responsibilities just magically disappear.

“Delegating is not a matter of letting go,” Mr. McIntyre says. “If, as the project manager, you let go completely, you might as well not be there. The key to delegation is being able to empower the people to do their own work, continuously measure the outcome and not step out of the picture.”

That means project leaders—especially ones new to the team—should set a solid foundation right at the onset.

“I like the saying, ‘If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there,’” Mr. von Graf says. “Be clear about timelines, talk specifically about how each member's portion of the project ties into the rest of the work, then step back and be there to help.”

Mr. Griffiths maintains control by taking an agile approach to scheduling. And that, he contends, lends itself well to safe delegation and decision-making, because of the emphasis on planning in smaller increments. Project leaders can focus on the more immediate future and adapt rapidly as project conditions change.

“We work in two- or four-week iterations so we have checkpoints in place to assess what is working and where improvements need to be made,” he says. “Having these regular checkpoints gives you safeguards to make sure nothing goes too far off the rails.”

Mr. Griffiths recommends project leaders establish tools and methods of communication early, set a consistent schedule for team meetings, publish an agenda beforehand, follow up and then hold people accountable for the resulting action items. These practices, he believes, allow team members to raise red flags while there's still time to address issues.

But all of the safeguards in the world won't keep people from making mistakes. “You give people the opportunity and have a fail-safe plan in place, because you have to expect people to make mistakes,” Ms. Symons says. “Give them space to learn. No one is going to be perfect at first.”

That's why project leaders should be ready to step in to help team members correct the problem and learn from mistakes.

Once unshackled from some of the mundane tasks that suck up time, project leaders can zero in on activities that add more value.

“Trusting that capable, engaged team members are at work, a strategic plan is in place and communication lines are open allows me to focus on the project's ultimate scope and vision, communicate with stakeholders and make sure that team members are being challenged, succeeding and receiving the recognition they deserve,” Mr. McIntyre says.

So go ahead, liberate a few items on that to-do list. PM


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