Photo by Sebastian Ahmed

Unpacking Delegation — Part 5

Sebastian Ahmed
Jan 3 · 6 min read

This is the final part of my series of articles about delegation for technology leaders. I would love to write more on this topic, but to do so, I need to learn more through observation and experience.

In this installment, we look at the temporal properties of delegation, followed by listing possible outcomes resulting from systematic delegation including the busting of our final myth and close out with a more formalized definition of delegation.

Temporal Response

The effectiveness of delegation in relation to time can be a function of many dependent variables. The benefit (or lack thereof) of delegation moves in lockstep between delegator and delegate. For example, consider the fact that after delegating you are freed to focus on the next major thing in your queue (which is a good thing), and the delegate gets to drive a high-value project that is also important to them (which is also good). On the other hand, if you hold on to the “thing”, progress will slow and the thing may lose relevance or suffer. At the same time, your team will be missing out on a great opportunity and possibly observing your failure (bad for everyone involved).

A conceptual view of how this “win-win” or “lose-lose” affect occurs over time, can be viewed as the “effectiveness” (E) of the delegation as a function of time (t) as show in the diagram below. The temporal response is a continuous function, but we can generally split it into four regions:

Drawing by Sebastian Ahmed

During this time, the “thing” is a very new idea or initiative. It is not at all clear what the goals are, the possible outcomes or if it is even worth doing. Delegating something so early in the process will result in a possibly random effectiveness (and possibly frustrating for both parties). This region of time should represent the very fuzzy front-end of the “thing” and is probably best left to evolve further.

In these two regions, (which I am grouping together because they form a continuum) is where the delegation will have the most effect. It is early enough that it provides opportunity for the delegate to determine its strategy (true ownership involves autonomy in shaping the project) and enables you to go into the influencing/supporting role.

How does one know they are in this region? Some signs would be:

  • Clarity in relation to the region “Region of Uncertainty” in terms of what the project is in terms of goals and scope. At this point there should actionable things to really move forward (plans, people).
  • Overall it should feel like something that one of your team members can take from here with some initial guidance. The level of uncertainty and complexity will of course be different if you are delegating to an emerging technical lead vs a senior manager. In the latter, the “thing” should be something that is approaching director-level responsibilities.

If you are a new manager for example, you may wonder how do you go about delegating during this region. There may be confusion whether it is in fact your responsibility as a leader to delegate this “thing”. Ask yourself this question:

“is there someone on my team that will benefit and grow more than I, if I delegate?”

If the answer is yes, then you should delegate this. The reason is twofold, 1) That person will grow and 2) You can seek a “thing” that will help you grow to lead better. If the answer is no, it may be a sign that this “thing” may be an unreasonable thing to delegate and it is important you use it as an opportunity to develop your abilities.

As we enter the “Region of Decay”, what has likely happened is that you have spent too much energy on the “thing”. You may even feel like you are slowing things down a bit. The delegate may feel a slight sense of a half-baked project being handed to them and possible concerns about having enough room to shape it in the right way. But it is still “all good” at this point.

Note the cliff which is formed by the transition from the “Region of Decay”. This is essentially the region of a failed delegation. Damage has been done to both the delegator and delegate. You as the delegator held on to the “thing” for too long. It has possibly cost you in terms of other more strategic things (opportunity cost) and the “thing” itself is likely suffering. Now you are truly dumping this failure on someone else. They will be under pressure to salvage the thing with limited opportunity to do it right.

If you are in the region of damage, you may consider abandoning the thing, because “nothing gained” may better than “damage done”.

How do you know you are in this region? Here are the signs:

  • You had no serious intent to delegate this thing and you are likely failing at leading it, because you did not have the time and focus or possibly even lack some required skills or experience.
  • Your delegation may only provide diminished benefits for the delegate such as growth at this point. The opportunities to shape the thing are not really there.
  • Overall, a delegation attempt in this time region looks and feels more like a call to save the day rather than a more noble desire to provide opportunity.

If you have no choice but to still make the “thing” happen, make sure you talk to the delegate about how you have failed on this and how you need their help. Do not try to sell it as a legitimate empowering delegation. That would be disingenuous. Always own your mistakes, learn and do better next time. This is an opportunity for showing some humility.

It may be noted that such a curve may also apply to making timely decisions (a topic for another post).

So that innovation and people can thrive

Photo by Sebastian Ahmed (a thriving forest in Flagstaff, AZ)

The title of this section was the “why” in my user-story definition of delegation covered in Part 1. In this section, we provide some possible outcomes around innovation, people, and team culture resulting from effective delegation. This is by no means a complete list, but rather a sampling of possible outcomes that may resonate with you:

  • Your team sees you as someone who has their careers and ambitions at the forefront of your mind. This is safety and trust.
  • The team is more energetic, productive, and engaged. The sense of mission and vision is strong.
  • You spend more time on exploring new ideas and seeing the forest from the trees ensuring that the overall team is moving towards the vision.
  • You have been able to get more in-depth technically on a variety of new technologies, some of which may lead to driving new initiatives you will delegate in the future — thus crushing Myth #4: “Delegation will erode my ‘currency’ as a technical expert”
  • The “stagnant” team (described in Part 4) gets involved with an exciting new project breathing some new life and excitement into their mission.
  • You find you have a lot more time for regular one-on-ones which are your most important meetings by far.

What are some other possible outcomes that you can think of? The outcomes you can think of should be the reasons to delegate.

Summary

It is my hope that that you have gained some new perspective on what it really means to delegate resulting in a successful unpacking. In closing, I will leave you with my more formal definition of delegation:

Delegation is a process which provides the required agency for ideas to give rise to outcomes that create new value in people, teams, and innovation.

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Sebastian Ahmed

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Technology Leader | Systems Architect | Programmer | Photographer

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