Delegation is an art, not a science

Originally posted Mar 1, 2022

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When managers get to the “Delegate these tasks” quadrant of the Eisenhower matrix, they can hit a big mental roadblock. Delegation sometimes feels like it will require more of your time, energy, and focus than just doing the project yourself!

Delegating important work isn’t as simple as assigning someone a ticket, or putting their name down for the “responsible party” on a RACI matrix. We want our teammates to be successful when they’re picking up bigger, visible projects, and this requires some planning and ongoing support from us as managers.

And because we want our teammates to be successful, delegation becomes an art, not a science. Each project will be unique, and each teammate you delegate to will have their own set of strengths and weaknesses, areas of expertise, network of support, and potentially some skills they have yet to learn. To delegate effectively, you’ll need to prep in a way that’s tailored to the project, context, and individual.

Don’t worry, I’ve got a template for you!

In this template, you’ll find prompts to help you know what to say to your teammate, and an example delegated project to give you inspiration. You’ll see three sections:

  1. The project goal
  2. Pro tips you can offer your teammate
  3. Specifics about how you’ll support your teammate

Project goal

The first step is really simple: describe in one sentence the outcome you want to see for this project. I’m intentionally asking you to keep this short and sweet; “bottom line” the goal or outcome you’re aiming for to help crystallize it for your teammate.

However! Don’t describe your idea for a solution, or a step-by-step process of the “how.” It’s important that the person you’re delegating to determines their own process!

Articulating the goal (without spelling out the “how”) will help your teammate develop their leadership skills, connect their own dots, and come up with a solution that you may never have thought of yourself.

Pro tips

Set your teammate up for success with some pro tips and lessons learned to help them avoid pitfalls. Here are my three prompts to help you brainstorm tips to share for any project:

I recommend you give your teammate a maximum of three pro tips when you hand them the project. If you offer too many tips, you run the risk of telling your teammate all of the “how”—remember, we want them to connect their own dots to help them grow! And again, the way we’ve tackled a project like this before might not at all work for them; they’re a different person with unique skills, experiences, approaches, etc.

Give them room to do this important work themself; just offer a few handy tips to help them gain early momentum, or avoid major mistakes you foresee.

Clarity and support for your teammate

Though this level of prep might feel like a ton of work for you up front, in reality, you’re creating a safety net for your teammate that will (hopefully) result in less work for you over time.

This up front investment will translate to a stronger leader who can take on bigger, even more important projects going forward. You’re building a new bench of leaders by delegating projects in this way.

That said, we still need to protect your energy and time! In the delegation template, finish these sentences:

I will support you by…

Get tremendously clear on 2-5 actions you’ll take to support this teammate while they’re working on this big project. Each type of support should begin with a verb, like “Reading and giving you feedback on early drafts in Google Docs.”

You can also include bullets about what work you are not going to do. Identify any responsibilities you might have had, or tasks you might have done in the past for this kind of project that will now be fully your teammates’ responsibility.

Telling your teammate what you won’t be doing for this project can create just as much clarity for them as what you will be doing to support them! It can also decrease potential confusion down the line about who is responsible for different aspects of the project.

You should reach out to me when…

Sometimes folks will spin in a rabbit hole and feel blocked for days because they’re not sure if it’s okay to ask you for help on a specific thing. Make it easy for your teammate to know when and how to reach out to you when they have a question or need a hand. Similarly, some folks may come to you too many times, to the point when this project is no longer actually delegated.

Be specific about your preferred medium and what the trigger might be for them to reach out; this will give them explicit permission to come to you when they need help or feel stuck. It will also create some boundaries, encouraging this teammate to work some things out on their own. On the second page of the delegation template, I give a few examples!

This will be a success when…

Coupled with your one-line project goal, this will help your teammate know what you’re looking for to determine that the project is complete. Your success metric should be time-boxed and able to be measured by your teammate. Be sure to create a metric that is not subjective.

Last but not least, I want to share this reminder from Resilient Management for you when you’re delegating a messy, unscoped project, which is exactly when your teammate will grow:

“Tell [your teammate] that you expect this to be a stretch for them, and that’s the point. You trust that they’re capable of doing great work with this project, and that they will raise a flag to you if they get stuck.”

I know that delegating big projects like this will be a stretch for you, too. And that’s the point. :) It can be tough to find the time, energy, and focus necessary to prepare a big handoff like this. Additionally, it’s tough to let go when you’re the lead on something, because it all rolls up to you.

And! I know that you’re capable of delegating important work and helping your teammates grow, feel supported, and find success throughout this big new challenge.

By delegating work, you’re being a sponsor for your teammate, which is the most effective way to help them grow in their careers—and entrusting them with this important work will likely be a point of pride for the rest of their careers.

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Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.

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