In the month since I wrote the post on delegation (written in April, posted in July), I have made huge progress in learning to delegate. As a result, I actually have some interesting thoughts on the subject. In particular, there is a huge difference between merely assigning (or dumping) work on others and actual delegating effectively.
At work, we are adopting a semi-virtual law department model where we hire independent contractors to help us out our growing company. As a result, I have been working with multiple lawyers in trying to get the work of our department done. Here are some lessons learned:
Not all work should be delegated
While it depends on the amount of resources you have access to, not all work should be delegated. For instance, if you have certain projects that you want done in a particular way, it might make sense for you to keep them. However, you should not make this a common practice; else you are a bad delegator (micromanager). One way I get around this is that I will sometimes have one person start a project, yet give it to another will finish it. For example, we have one independent contractor who has been with us for years. She knows our organization very well (including our unique culture) and has a great attention to detail – as a result she can put final touches on projects and bring them to completion far more effectively than trying to get a similar result with a contractor who knows our company less well.
Delegating is about teaching, not efficiency
There is a real cost to delegation (cost to delegate = time spent explaining project + time spent monitoring project + difference in quality between what you want and what you get). Viewed in isolation, there is a real temptation to do a project yourself in order to minimize these costs associated with delegation.
However, though this is not frequently discussed, there is also a cost to not delegating (opportunity cost of the missed growth of the delegator and delegate + every issue always has to involve the boss + boss has less time to work on more important things). Anyone who is worked with or for a micromanager boss knows this – the boss gets involved in everything – which is an ineffective management practice and constitute very bad leadership.
The key to delegation is about teaching. Instead of mere explaining the specific details of an assignment, spend a few extra moments to explain the context and “why” behind the project. In addition, explain the “why” behind why it is better to do it this way versus that way (and also forces you to make sure there is actually a real “why”, not just arbitrary preferences). This information will help your delegate perform better and will help them grow over time. In addition, at the end of an assignment, always make sure that you close the loop with your delegate by sharing any tweaks that you made (and why) after receiving an assignment from the delegate that he or she may not have been privy to.
By investing your time in teaching and training, wonderful things happen. Over time, your delegate grows and can take on high-quality work with less assistance. In addition, the costs of delegation continue to shrink as less time is spent explaining and monitoring projects, and the difference between what you get and what you want decreases.
Delegation helps your team grow
Delegation helps your team grow. By freeing up busy but experienced personnel, they have more time to work on higher level projects that will help them continue to grow and improve their technical skills. By giving projects to less experienced members of your team, they gain experience and their skills grow as well.
When delegating, thoughtfully consider what projects you will give and to who. Each assignment is an opportunity for growth, so it should go to the person who needs that experience. For example, by giving contracts to a litigation lawyer, they gain experience outside of their normal area. In addition, they may bring their experience to bear in the new area and make useful suggestions about how to modify the contract to avoid certain problems.
In contrast, you might give the same type of projects to the same person. While this can be a little tedious, it allows them to gain expertise in a specific area becoming the subject matter expert within your team. My personal preference is allow for specialization, but at the same time, always cross-train so that there are “secondary” experts on your team in each subject area.
In addition, besides delegation, it is important to engage in constant knowledge sharing so that the members of the team learn from each and are constantly improving their knowledge and skills. One way to do this is hold periodic meetings to tackle certain projects, where all members of the team contribute their expertise to the project at hand.
Delegation leverages your growth
This principle was a total discovery to me. By having two or three people to delegate to, I can handle two or three times the number of projects and issues. By taking on more projects, my legal skills have grown dramatically as the supervising attorney.
Two illustrations will explain this. By himself, an ER doctor could hypothetically monitor and treat 10 or so patients at a time. But give him 5 experienced nurses, and he could treat 50 patients (hopefully without any dying). As a result, he gains professional experience 5X faster than had he worked by himself. There is a diminishing returns to this, however, as the depth of learning tends to decrease (as opposed to the breadth of experience) when you have more and more direct reports.
Another illustration is of a CEO. Rather than being over just the functional area over which he came (like a CFO for example), a CEO now has direct reports from other areas that he has little or no formal training or experience. As a result, he gains broad exposure to areas he never actually worked in.
As a result of delegation, a person can gain technical expertise within their domain at a faster rate and exposure to other areas in which they supervise employees but never actually worked in.
Delegation frees you up for higher-level work
My boss recently thanked me for my “proactive thinking and planning” as I’ve been managing our law department, which made me “think about thinking.” In order to continue to grow in your career, you should spend more and more time on higher-level thinking. As discussed in earlier postings, creative thinking actually involved 7 types of thinking, including diagnostic thinking (what are the facts of the situation), visionary thinking (what you want), strategic thinking (how to get it). The goal is engage in diagnostic, visionary, and strategic thinking more often.
The only way to get this “thinking time” is to delegate effectively so that you don’t have to spend all of your time “doing” the work (ideational, evaluative, contextual, and tactical thinking). In order to become more valuable, you have to spend more time “thinking.” One way I accomplish this regularly is by traveling a lot (except during the summer). My trips out of town always provoke new thinking as a result of exposure to different stimuli (new or different surroundings) (see my lateral thinking posting). I always come back from trips with new ideas, especially about how to be more effective at work.
I have considered trying to “get away” from the office more often, by taking a note pad outside and walking on a nearby golf course, or working from home for a few hours a week. Of all the places I am least creative; unfortunately it is my desk at work.
If it is not important, let it go
The flip-side of the “teaching” coin is the “let it go” side. In order to delegate effectively, you have to choose your battles carefully. If something really doesn’t matter that much or there is a better way but the chosen way is working alright, than let it go! There is an optimal amount of teaching in any delegation situation while any additional “teaching” pushes you over the edge from good manager to micromanager. So let it go!