Alright, aspiring project managers. This is a topic near and dear to my heart. Its something I think about a lot and its probably one of the skills most lacking at all levels of project management. Not only that, its the one skill that I believe separates good managers from great managers.
The topic is (I’m sure you read the title already): delegation. The process of assigning and overseeing work done by others.
If you’ve had any sort of job before, project management or otherwise, you’ve likely had work delegated to you. You have have even been in a position where you’ve needed to delegate work to others.
It seems like it should be easy. Just take all the stuff you don’t want to do and give it away to someone who works for you, right? Unfortunately, its not that simple.
There’s more to effective delegation than just giving tasks away. How you do it, how you ensure completion, and how to avoid micromanagement are all considerations that need to be made to complete a successful project.
So, today we’re going to dive deep into the world of effective delegation techniques. Delegation, when done right, is a vital management skill that can significantly boost team efficiency and individual growth.
Four-Step Framework of Delegation
Delegation comes in many forms. Understanding the difference between these forms, and the responsibilities of each party is critical to delegation success.
Personally, I consider delegation to fall into one of four categories, or levels. To understand delegation better, let’s break it down the four-level framework:
Level one: Single task Delegation
This is where it all starts. As a project manager, you hand off a specific task to a team member, asking them to complete it in a particular way. Here, the expectations are clear: you define the task, the process, and the outcome.
This is likely in a situation where you’re swamped with work and need something taken off your plate. Your delegate only needs to know how to do the task the way you want it, and what it should look like.
(If you’ve ever had a felt micromanaged, its likely because the manager only ever engaged in level 1 delegation).
Level two: Regular Task Delegation
Once the team member demonstrates their competency in handling the task, you delegate the ownership of its regular completion.
The task, once a one-off, now becomes a routine responsibility for the team member. The process remains the same, but the frequency increases.
Your delegate is expected to complete the task at regular intervals with little-to-no prompting.
level three: task ownership delegation
The next step involves giving the team member the freedom to modify the process as they see fit. You’re no longer just delegating the task, but the ownership of the task itself.
They become responsible for not only completing the task but also improving it where possible.
If your delegate has been doing the task long enough, they understand the pitfalls in the process and can introduce efficiencies that better align with their work style, their competencies, and their work flow.
As long as the final product meets (or exceeds) your expectations, you’re no longer concerned with how they get there.
level four: result ownership delegation
The final step is delegating the ownership of the result. They’ve demonstrated an understanding of the output requirements through their control over the process. They’ve consistently produced high-quality work and they’ve proved they can respond quickly and expertly to any of your questions.
So, you grant the team member responsibility not only for the task and its process but also the quality of the outcome. They answer for the final product.
Whereas before, your delegate may have been expected to direct all work product to your for final review, you are now only involved in an advisory capacity.
Let them send their finished work right to the interested party, and check in occasionally. They are an extension of you. Allow them to engage directly with the client, senior leadership, or other stakeholders.
Note: as a project manager (or manager of any kind) you are always responsible for the work of your team. Your team’s mistakes are your mistakes. No throwing anyone under the bus.
Misconceptions and Challenges in Delegation
Delegation is a critical part of any management environment. While not unique to project management, it is a powerful tool in a project manager’s arsenal. However, despite its many benefits, delegation is often misunderstood.
So, lets address some common misconceptions:
Myth 1: Delegation is about passing off unwanted work
While it may seem that way, the goal of a project manager is not to do all the work, but to oversee the team that is responsible for the work. Project managers spend most of their time communicating and empowering the team.
While some managers use delegation as a tool to offload their boring tasks to unsuspecting team members (maybe this isn’t a complete myth), a good manager delegates not just the tasks they don’t want to do, but those that are more effective when done by others.
Delegation is about making effective use of your team resources, and that includes yourself.
Myth 2: Delegation is unfavorable for the delegee
If you’ve dealt with a first-time manager who only delegates level one tasks, then your experience with delegation can be negative. You spend a lot of time waiting for work. Your workflow is inconsistent and, lets face it, likely a roller coaster of “urgency”.
But, effective mutli-level delegation builds up junior team members.
Delegation is one of the primary means by which team members take ownership of tasks and develop independence. Level 3 and 4 delegations provide employees with opportunities for ownership and growth.
I’ve personally found that the number one driver for team member engagement is ownership. We’ll talk more about motivation and working styles in future posts, but often the least motivated team members just lack ownership over their work.
Myth 3: Managers should feel uncomfortable delegating tasks
None of these are really myths, I’ll admit. There’s some truth to all three, but there doesn’t need to be.
While it’s natural to feel awkward assigning boring administrative work, the PM’s job is to ensure the work gets done. A balance can be struck by providing interesting tasks along with the less interesting ones.
I used to feel so awkward asking for help with tasks like scanning, filing, filling out forms, etc. These types of level 1 and 2 delegations made me think my delegate hated me. They must have thought I was just dumping boring work on them (see myth 2).
But, not only are level 1 and 2 delegations stepping stones to the more fulfilling level 3 and 4 delegations, I actually found out some coworkers didn’t mind getting boring work sometimes. Just as long as it wasn’t all I gave them.
In my early days as a junior project manager, I had a senior project manager who consistently reached out for help completing tasks. There was often little relationship between the tasks and the work I was currently doing.
I’ve always had strong Excel and computer skills (something I can take for granted in the construction industry), so it wasn’t uncommon for someone to request a cost forecast, or a schedule summary, a product order, or something similar.
I’d complete each task with the level of care you’d expect from a level 1 delegation. I’d ask about the process, and I’d produce the expected result.
On more than one occasion, about a month after I’d completed particular tasks for this senior PM, I’d find myself on the other end of an angry phone call.
“Where’s the projection for this month?!”
“Where’s my updated schedule summary?!”
“Where’s the product for this month’s installation?!”
(He was an otherwise pleasant person to work with. Don’t get me wrong).
What I’d failed to realize is that, all of those times when he was asking me to help him on a task, I was assuming it was a level 1 delegation and he was assuming a level 2 delegation.
I hadn’t taken any steps to clarify the expectations, and neither did he. We both assumed a different level of ownership and, unfortunately, our assumptions left a gap in the project.
two types of delegation misalignment
In this case, I (as the delegate) was assuming a lower level of delegation than my delegator. Because of this, we were both expecting work to be completed by the other (I assumed he’d resume completion of the task, and he’d assumed I’d taken over).
This is probably the worst form of misalignment because it leads to incomplete work.
There is, however, an opposing form of misalignment where I, as a delegate, assume a higher level delegation than was assumed by my delegator. In this case, the next month I present him with completed work that he’s already completed. While it does result in some duplication of effort, the work gets done.
While the best strategy is to clarify expectations with your delegator or delegate, in the case where this isn’t possible, a delegate should often assume a level higher than is apparent, and a delegator should assume a level lower.
That is, if you’ve delegated something as a project manager, expecting it to be done regularly, assume your delegate will do it once and be sure to follow up next month (without the angry phone call).
If you’ve been delegated a task that needs to be done regularly but you haven’t been explicitly told to do so, check in to make sure or (assuming its not extremely costly or time consuming), just do it.
That said, a little communication goes a long way.
Effective Communication in Delegation
Effective delegation isn’t possible without clear communication. For the delegator, it’s crucial to be explicit about expectations. If you’re delegating a task for the first time, make it clear whether it’s a one-off task or a regular responsibility.
Note: Sometimes, for one-off tasks, it can often take more time explain a task than to do it. If you’re in a time crunch, you may need to just bite the bullet and skip the delegation. But, if you can spare the time, consider this an investment in your team. Delegation can benefit all parties.
for the delegator
Explain the task. Explain the desired outcome. Explain your process, but, also let your team member know if there’s always room for improvement.
I often ask that delegates complete the task my way the first time, and bring any questions to me when they encounter roadblocks. Sometimes, the obvious fix isn’t actually a feasible solution (and I’ve tried it before to no avail). Or, there may some reason for doing it a slightly less efficient way that they’re not aware of.
A lot of the time, though, I simply never had time to improve the process, I didn’t know how, or I didn’t even notice the problem.
Regardless, set them on the task with the knowledge that they’ll eventually have the freedom to make adjustments to the process. As you delegate more ownership of the task and its outcomes, ensure your team member is comfortable with the increased responsibility and is clear on their new role.
Note: Be willing to accept a slightly less efficient process than yours. Be willing to accept a slightly lower quality product than you’d make yourself. You may be an expert at this, but you weren’t always. Consider what is really required for this deliverable.
Giving away ownership means allowing others to do work their way. Don’t get caught up in nit-picking inconsequential decisions made by your delegate.
(Confession: I’m a huge Excel nerd, and it takes all my strength not to redo delegate spreadsheets. Sometimes you just need to let it go. Good enough is good enough.)
for the delegate
When you’re the delegate, don’t hesitate to ask questions. If something isn’t clear, seek clarification. Ask if the task is a one-time thing or a regular responsibility.
If you think you can improve the process, discuss it with your manager. Remember, your goal should be to move towards owning the task and its outcomes (and then someday eventually delegating it away!).
Whether you’re a manager or a team member, there are practical steps you can take this week to improve your delegation skills:
Start with a level 1 delegation. Identify a task or scope of work that you engage with regularly and a team member whom you believe is capable of eventually owning this task. Demonstrate your method and request their help with it. Have them document your method as they complete the task.
Once you and your team member are comfortable, move up to level 2. Let them know you’d like for them to complete this task regularly. If its a regularly scheduled task, suggest they mark it in their calendar. Ask if they want you to remind them of the task for the first little bit. (I find it annoying to be reminded of tasks that I have full ownership of. It can make me feel like I’m not trusted to do the work unless I’m told. But at the start, reminders can be critical to get in the right groove.)
Once you’re happy with their continued results, have your delegate think of ways to improve the system. Inform them that you’re most interested in the final result and grant them freedom to enter level 3.
Finally, proceed to level 4. Depending on the final destination of this product or task, allow them to engage directly with the end-user, client, or stakeholder. Allow them to collect feedback and grant them ownership of their mistakes.
This process may take days, weeks, or even months, and that’s okay. The goal is to gradually build confidence and trust.
On my current project, a lot of the project engineers have level 3 ownership of Requests for Information (RFIs), and level 4 ownership of document submissions. If we receive RFI responses or comments on document submissions from the client, our engineers know to take action right away.
If you’re not yet in a supervisory position but have been delegated a task (or even if you are), think about how you can move from a level 1 or 2 to a level 3 or 4 delegation. Discuss your ideas with your manager and show them that you’re ready to take on more responsibility.
You may even be able to take some initiative by identifying tasks that could be delegated. Make a request for a level 1 delegation from your supervisor or colleagues. Its a great way to stand out, help relieve some pressure on your team, and (perhaps most importantly) get more ownership over the types of work you enjoy.
On my last project as an Assistant Project Manager, I recognized that the contract required a monthly status report. We were 4 months into the project and no one had submitted one (and the client wasn’t asking).
I spoke to my supervisor about putting a template together (level 1), and eventually took control over compiling the report (level 2). With each month, I recognized ways to make the report more concise and easy to build (think tables and diagrams over paragraphs, level 3). By the end of the project, my project manager wasn’t involved at all in the monthly report (level 4).
Delegation is an essential skill for any project manager, but it’s often misunderstood. Remember, it’s not about passing off unwanted work, but about developing your team and making the most of everyone’s skills. It’s a process that involves clear communication and gradually increasing levels of responsibility.
It will feel awkward at first, and it may feel challenging at times, but the benefits – for both the manager and the team – are well worth the effort.
So, start small, communicate clearly, and don’t be afraid to gradually hand over more ownership.
Check in soon for more insights on project management. Remember, it’s a journey, and every step you take towards better delegation is a step towards becoming a more effective project manager.