When people default to autonomy

Delegation is the crux of management. A good manager can delegate clearly, effectively, and fairly, but delegation without empathy devolves into tyranny. Most management books will do a decent job of understanding and explaining delegation. My experience has found that clarity through written decree and measurements, identifying the right things to delegate, and spreading ownership to be the big hits.

To provide clarity in what is delegated you have to specify when this responsibility will end. What will success look like? A project shipped to users? A metric realized? A date on the calendar? It should of course be written down. I have a terrible memory improved by writing things down, but you’ve most likely learned that not everyone thinks or works like you — no matter your career progression. And if the outcome is observable (which it should be) a description of how this will be measured. Latency improvement — Monitoring dashboard; Hiring a team — a spreadsheet and some qualitative feedback; Project shipped — Post mortem invite. These observable outcomes are examples but in your application of delegation should be explicit when the task is given. After not specifying a goal, the worst thing to do is to move the goal post.

Effective delegation is making sure you aren’t wasting anyone’s time. The company (or you!) pay money in the form of salary and time spent on executing. A project’s costs will compound over time — producing, maintaining, rebuilding. And if it’s the wrong product you will continue to sink time and money into a cost center with little value. Failure is giving someone responsibility to ship (design, work on, own, etc..) a product that isn’t good for the business.

Spread the love of delegation! Find something that can drive each person on your team and make sure you can delegate responsibilities to them unique to that drive. It doesn’t always work out perfectly, but over time you should have split new ideas, projects, or focuses between everyone on your team. If you aren’t able to share responsibility evenly (broad strokes of course), then your issue isn’t solved by delegation. You’re probably failing as a leader and not supporting your team as they need. Spend time with people to understand what drives them. If your focus is on empowering the team to be successful, then individuals have to feel proud and successful as well.

This was going to be a pretty bleak post titled “Playbook to discredit and disenfranchise existing teams”, but I like how this turned out instead. Early in my management career I read “If You Want It Done Right, You Don’t Have to Do It Yourself! The Power of Effective Delegation”. I found it completely pithy and ridiculous and I still do. But I have returned to the principles many times and consider it a foundational view of how I approach management. The best employees want autonomy; they default to it. Delegation solves this.

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Nick Smith

Was once a junior engineer who stared at the `parse` function in the Backbone.JS docs for over 6 hrs. Engineering leader based in Philadelphia