Tips for Passing the Baton

by Johanna Rothman. This article was originally published in Software Development Magazine, February 2002.

Sometimes, multitasking runs amok. If you're suffocating under piles of paperwork or controlling your staff's every action, you need help: Learn to delegate duties and regain your focus as a manager.

Once you've made the transition from engineer to technical lead, project manager or people manager, it's time to learn how to delegate.

When Brendan, a development manager, started having trouble accomplishing all his tasks, he came to me for advice. In addition to general management and technical work, Brendan was on the critical path for part of the project. Though he recognized that he was swamped, he was afraid to relinquish responsibility and worried that others wouldn't get the work done.

Brendan believed that by doing this work himself, he could enforce quality control—but he was holding up work that needed to be done. When I told him that a manager's true role is to guide the project's progress, he finally decided it was time to delegate.

Like playing the violin, delegation is a learned skill that can best be acquired with assistance. The following four suggestions helped Brendan change his management style for the better

A Question of Control

You can't control how other people do their work; you can only control your requests of their work output. Instead of caring about how people do their work, treat their work like a project. Lay out the task requirements and tell them what success means to you. You might have to specify whom the work is for, how fast you need it done, and the appropriate quality. Don't tell people how to do their jobs; instead, make yourself available if they need your help.

Obviously, you need to track progress. One way is to work with the new task owner to decide what “in-progress” measurements are needed (if any). What makes sense? What will give you insight without interfering? The measurements should be related to your expected outputs.

You may be saying, “I know how to do the job, so why shouldn't I tell them how I want it done?” Everyone has their own way of doing things. As long as they produce your desired results, do you really care how they did the work? Though their methods may differ, they may also be superior to yours. Much can be learned from a different perspective.

For example, I like to create project schedules from the top down, starting with major milestones and progressing to the end date. However, Tim, one of my project leads, defined his schedules from the bottom up. Initially, I wanted Tim to schedule his part of the project from the top down. But I curbed my controlling urge, realizing that telling Tim how to schedule would be counterproductive—he might suspect that I didn't trust him to do his work. This wasn't true, but because Tim and I thought differently, we had to make allowances for our different approaches.

In the long run, I don't care which scheduling techniques my leads use. What I care about is that both leads and project teams understand the milestones that they've agreed on, how to achieve those milestones and that they have sufficient resources to do so.

As a manager, you want a predictable outcome—not necessarily a repetition of your own techniques.

In my discussion with Brendan, I explained the concept of seeking a predictable outcome without following cookbook working habits, and asked if that would work for him. “Well, looking for outcomes would work for the builds and getting rid of the defects,” he replied. “But I want to do some technical work—I'm good at it, and I like it. I especially like it when I'm stuck on some of my management work.”

Avoid Distractions

If you're stuck on a managerial problem, don't distract yourself with other tasks—stay focused and seek help. Brendan often regressed to coding when he was stuck on a management issue. Although the familiar task made him feel better momentarily, it was a dangerous distraction: His management problems remained unsolved, and often worsened due to his lack of attention. It's easy to succumb to the temptation of the tried and true when you're frustrated with an unfamiliar problem. But Brendan was making a classic management mistake. If you're stuck on a management problem, don't avoid it—instead, seek help. Do you have a management mentor? If not, find a manager you respect in your organization. He needn't be in your group—any managerial colleague throughout the company will do. Create a formal mentoring relationship, listen and learn.

If you feel that the problem can't wait for a formal mentor, don't let that stop you from finding help. Don't know how to write a performance evaluation? Obtain assistance from HR or your peers.

Don't know how to create a budget? Ask your boss. Don't know how to assign tasks? Ask your staff to help you define their assignments. Have your peers tell you what they do.

Brendan was stuck on his capital equipment and salary budgets for the coming year. He asked his boss for capital equipment budgets from the previous year, and was able to use them as a template for the new budget. He asked a peer how she estimated her salary budget, and adapted her system, thus completing this unfamiliar task on time.

If you enjoy the technical part of your job and don't want to give it up, make sure you're working on small, independent segments, so that your management duties won't delay the project. And make sure you're never on the critical path for a project, because technical work must take precedence over other demands.

Pass the Buck

If you're working long hours or blocking other people's work, it's time to delegate. For example, one of Brendan's problems was keeping up with paperwork. He hated having to check arithmetic on expense reports, and detested filling out weekly HR forms. Brendan's approach to paperwork was to ignore it until someone pestered him about it. Unfortunately, this shove-it-under-the-rug approach penalized his staff and delayed his workflow. A manager can't afford to put off approving expense reports or capital equipment expenditures.

If paperwork is one of your pet peeves, find an assistant, administrative or otherwise, to help you. I find it useful to gather all paperwork in one place, and allocate a daily time-slot for it. Some managers prefer to handle each piece of paper only once, but that doesn't work for me. Instead, I limit the amount of time I spend on paperwork, but attend to it faithfully every day.

If you really can't stand to look at that stack of paper piling up, try delegating it to someone else in your group. Other people might jump at the chance to work on the capital equipment budget. Chances are good that someone else will enjoy the work you abhor, so let them do it, but retain responsibility for the paperwork (such as employee forms and salary increases) that only you have authority to complete.

Sometimes, working long hours is a sign that you're taking too much on yourself and are perhaps micromanaging, questioning and second-guessing your staff. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you understand what your staff is doing? Sometimes, managers micromanage because they don't understand what their staff members are doing, and try to learn what's going on by checking in too frequently. If you're doing this, stop. Tell your staff openly that you want to understand more about what they're doing, and have them explain it to you.
  • Do you manage only by walking around? Do you lean over people's shoulders and tell them how to do their work? If your only way to talk to your staff is to drop in on them, consider having formal one-on-ones every week or two. You can have your staff tell you what they're doing, and you can ask them more about what they'd like to do.
  • Are you assigning projects without evaluating which ones are the most important and require the most person-power? All too often, caught up in the urgency of the moment, managers start yet another project without considering long-term priorities. If you find yourself responsible for too many projects and assigning too many projects to your staff, it's time to make your “Not-to-do” list, delineating which work you and your group will not do. If your desk is overflowing with work, and you and your staff are putting in overtime on a regular basis, chances are good that you're doing someone else's job as well as your own. Once you stop that, you'll have the time to do your own job well.
  • Are you assigning deadlines before your staff can tell you how long the work will take? Your staff are the experts here. Talk to them about their estimates and make suggestions to expedite the work, but if you assign deadlines, you're not allowing your staff to hone their own estimation skills. Delegate the responsibility for estimates to your staff, decriminalize estimation mistakes and help people learn from their estimates.

If you work in an organization that employs stretch goals (goals that seem impossible, but prompt people to reconsider how to expedite work), ask “Is it possible to finish the project two months earlier?”—and listen to the answer.

  • Are you assigning working relationships without regard for personal interaction? Although many of us work in teams, we can't always be one big, happy family. Aside from “hard” skills like technical expertise and know-how, an effective team gels through ephemeral qualities like personality, sense of humor and work styles. If staff members work well together, let them continue. If they prefer to work with other team members, honor these requests whenever possible. Don't try to stuff cats and dogs into the same cage: the results aren't too pleasant.

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you're not acting in the best interest of your staff and your organization. You don't need to make all of the decisions—but you do have to know which decisions to make and which to delegate. Brendan realized he was making too many decisions on his own, preventing his staff from taking on relevant responsibilities. He decided to let go and delegate some tasks to team members who were capable of handling them. Once he stopped trying to own all the decisions, his work hours—and work stress—decreased dramatically. In addition, with one-on-ones, he was able to make fewer and better decisions.

Upward Mobility

Work your way out of your current job. Frequently, managers are the “spiritual center” of their departments, and all major decisions come through them. If you're making all the minor decisions, too, you're becoming indispensable—it's time to delegate, so you won't prevent your staff from learning more than their current jobs allow.

As a manager, you can ask yourself, “Am I working my way out of my job, or am I becoming indispensable?” Indispensable employees are rarely that—more typically, they're not able to change as the work changes. At some point, they obsolesce, because they've stayed focused on how things have always been. Remember, “indispensable” employees can't take on more responsibility or move to a new role in the organization.

Brendan had a big problem with interruptions—someone was always asking him to make decisions. Since he'd been the technical leader before moving into management, it was natural for people to continue to come to him with technical, as well as management problems. However, Brendan's management duties were daunting enough—under the onslaught of technical questions, he felt as if he were drowning. I suggested that Brendan discard the flotsam and jetsam of indispensability and grab a life preserver: his staff.

As a wise manager, you can encourage your staff to practice their own decision-making—and make sure you refrain from second-guessing their decisions. Assign technical leadership roles, and tell employees that it's their job to assess the risks and make the decisions. Assure them that you'll be there if they need you, but make it clear that certain kinds of decisions must be theirs and theirs alone.

Then, step back. Allow your staff to try new things and make mistakes. Use your one-on-ones to review the effects of their decisions, and make sure you offer positive reinforcement for the kind of risk-taking that creates results.

Brendan tried this approach and was pleased with its success. During one-on-ones with staff members, he explained his new position: “I know you're smart and capable. You decide if you need me to make these decisions. If you say I need to be involved, I will be. If not, I'd really like you to figure out a way to make most of the day-to-day project decisions on your own. If you need my help for a while, I'll walk you through how I think about the problem. No matter what, I have faith that you're going to try to make good decisions about the project on your own.” By making himself less indispensable, he secured the foundations of a strong, flexible team

Be a Reinforcer

Examine your work schedule—if you're feeling scattered and frazzled, and if you're consistently working into the wee hours, it's time to delegate. You can and should learn to organize your work overload by delegating responsibilities to your staff. Yes, by teaching your staff to make their own decisions, you'll lose the illusion of control. However, by not delegating, you risk becoming an “indispensable” roadblock, in spite of horrendous overtime or obsessive multitasking. To delegate well, focus on the results, not the medium: Allow your staff to create their own paths toward well-established goals, and you'll find that you, your staff and your project will benefit.


Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.