So I’m getting someone else to do my work?
Delegation is very powerful.
Yet, for new managers, the process can feel really weird. A career spent as an individual contributor, where one is responsible for taking tasks and executing on them until they are finished, feels an entire galaxy away from this new role where tasks are often delegated to someone else. It’s especially challenging for those with perfectionist qualities in their own work: how will you even know it’s being done right? As strange and uncomfortable as it first appears, delegating is an absolutely essential tool for a manager. Mastering delegation, and thus building your team so that they can expertly carry out those delegated tasks, is the key to understanding and increasing your output.
Why is delegating so important?
Imagine starting your own small business. Let’s pretend that it’s a coffee shop. You have humble beginnings and a handful of customers. You’re able to take the orders, collect payment, make the drinks and serve them yourself. This endeavor is going well, and you’ve managed to break even (well done!). Then, a favorable review in a national newspaper shines the spotlight on your little coffee shop. Visitors come in droves and you’re overwhelmed with no additional staff. Now you can’t do this all by yourself. However, increased profits allow you to hire an additional member of staff who works the coffee machine, and you remain front of house, taking orders and payment and talking to customers. It is your coffee shop, after all; the review was particularly fond of your charisma and passion for what you do. As the business does better, you hire another member of staff to take orders and payment. You turn your focus to expanding the range of coffee beans the shop stocks, widening the selection of drinks that you serve, and beginning researching a menu of cakes and snacks. You spend more time orchestrating and less time turning the cogs in the machine.
The coffee shop example is easy to understand: the coffee shop is still yours, however, you, as the owner, are able to free yourself up from the tasks that can be replicated by others with training, allowing you to make more strategic decisions and plan for growth. This is exactly how management via delegation works, yet it is surprising how few technology managers grasp this concept!
How do I measure my output?
There is an equation that Andy Grove defined in High Output Management:
A manager’s output = the output of their organization + the output of the neighboring organizations under their influence.
It’s a very simple yet powerful way of understanding the essence of a manager’s job. Framing it in terms of our example above, your organization is the coffee shop. You, as the manager, are concerned with the quality of the coffee, the number of coffees sold, the number of visitors and the revenue that it generates. It’s easy to understand, and you can imagine the different levers that can be pulled to increase profit, speed, and quality. But what does equation mean for a manager in a knowledge-based industry such as software development?
It means that managers should stop measuring their output in how much work they, individually, get done each day. That’s not what a manager does as a core competency; that’s something for the individual contributors to worry about. If you are a team leader, your organization is your team. If you are a VP, this is your division. If you are a CTO, it’s the whole department. As a manager, you need to be concerned with, and actively trying to increase the output of, your own organization. You need to delegate effectively.
It’s worth highlighting that there are two things that delegation definitely is not.
Firstly, delegating is not a “fire and forget” activity. As Grove points out, it is not abdication. It’s not like receiving an email and then immediately forwarding it to someone else. You are accountable for all of the tasks that your organization has to complete, regardless of whether you are doing them yourself or not. You are required to monitor the tasks being done and make sure that they are being completed to the quality that you expect. You can raise this quality both technically and via inspiration: by coaching staff to become more skilled at activities, or by providing support and motivation to help them perform better.
Secondly, delegation is not micromanagement. You are required to use the right mix of instruction and coaching to get your direct reports to work independently. But how do you figure out the right amount?
Task Relevant Maturity
Each member of staff in your organization has a level of seniority in their area or as Grove describes it, “task-relevant maturity” (TRM). This is how skilled they are at getting tasks done to the required quality. Your approach to delegating is dependent on this skill level. Grove presents three levels of TRM: low, medium and high.
Low TRM: Here you will delegate a task, but you will need to provide specific instructions on how it is done, often following the progress closely along the way. Skilled direct reports will not stay at this stage for very long. This stage is also intensive on the manager’s time.
Medium TRM: Here, the direct report will understand how to do the task, so the manager’s focus isn’t about prescribing how to do it. Instead, the instructor role turns into a facilitator role: providing support, advice, and feedback as the delegated task is being done, often with the requests for feedback being driven by the member of staff doing it.
High TRM: At this level, the direct report needs very little support. An up-front discussion to confirm the expected outcome is all that is required. A manager’s responsibility here is to set the bar high to coach the skilled direct report to perform at the best of their ability.
High functioning teams
Given that direct reports have different levels of TRM, the manager’s responsibility is to instruct and then coach staff from low levels of TRM to high levels. A team full of high TRM staff can become almost hands-free for the manager. It then follows that the manager can then increase the number of staff in their organization and thus increase their output.
TRM shows how important it is to have your senior staff placed within teams where they can raise the TRM of others through mentorship. An obvious example that comes to mind is pairing junior developers with senior developers. In the long term, the junior developers will improve their skills and contribute more to the organization, and in turn will be able to coach other more junior staff. Everyone gets better together.
As a manager, you can only increase your own output so much: there are a set amount of hours in the day. However, your performance is measured on the output of your organization, not just your personal output. Therefore, delegating tasks with sensitivity and skill is not only a way for your own output to increase, but it is a way for your organization to become more skilled and autonomous. Continued practice in delegation can open the doors for further expansion of the organization that you lead. The CEO of a FTSE 500 company is a master delegator: she delegates her strategy to her whole organization.
Think about the TRM of your own organization. How could you increase it by delegating further?