Thursday, January 27, 2022

How Effective Delegation Fuels Better Business Performance (and More)

In the architecture and engineering profession, we've always worked in teams. That doesn't
mean we've mastered it. As a consultant over the last 28 years, I've spent a good deal of my time helping firms overcome teamwork problems. Inadequate planning, poor communication, coordination issues, quality breakdowns, budget overruns, missed deadlines, conflict among team members—these are just a few of the complications I've dealt with. I assume you have too.

Most of these problems have been associated at least in part with failures to properly delegate. That's looking on the negative side. My focus in this article, however, is to consider the many benefits of mastering delegation. The topic seems particularly relevant now, as firms struggle to manage heavy workloads with employees strained to their limits, and the ability to hire additional staff getting increasingly difficult. Delegating well can help!

The Goal of Delegation

At its most basic level, delegating is entrusting a task or responsibility to another person. Every firm engages in this every day. But delegating effectively goes much deeper than simply passing the baton. As this delegation guidebook published by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants puts it:

  • (Delegation) is the tool that allows firms and individuals to concentrate their energies on those areas in which they have a competitive advantage, and to delegate or outsource everything else. In this sense, delegating is essential to focusing efforts on core competencies. The assets of a firm, its partners, staff, and technology can then be allocated to their highest, best, and most cost-effective use.

In other words, the ideal for delegation would be to distribute tasks in such manner that team members are enabled to provide the maximum value they each can bring to their work. That's arguably an impractical goal—especially among junior staff—but one still worth pursuing in concept. As one author stated, delegation seeks to position team members to reach their full potential as project contributors.

Another ambitious goal is to delegate tasks down to the lowest level they can be capably performed. This relates to the principle of leverage, which is widely understood among other professional service sectors but is little recognized in ours. Positive leverage means that your ratio of senior to midlevel to junior staff fits the needs of the work you perform, and presumes that you distribute work tasks accordingly. Getting leverage right is a proven strategy for increasing growth, profitability, and productivity in businesses like ours.

The Benefits of Effective Delegation

Daunting as the two goals identified above might be in practice, progress toward them can still be expected to produce meaningful benefits. Acknowledging those benefits can inspire greater diligence in learning to master delegation skills. The benefits include:

  • Frees up time for higher-payoff activities. This is particularly important for leaders, who can easily find themselves so immersed in project work that there's little time to lead or to focus on critically important-but-not-urgent tasks. As the guidebook quoted above asserts, delegating helps you create space to focus on those tasks where you bring the greatest value to the firm and its clients.
  • Produces greater team efficiency and productivity. Successful delegation is about fitting tasks to the right people such that greater efficiency and cost-effectiveness can be collectively achieved. This is realized in part through using less expensive personnel (often with higher multipliers) to perform much of the work, and also through balancing the workload to enable greater staff utilization.
  • Facilitates staff development. People best develop new skills and knowledge by putting these into action. Thus when work isn't appropriately delegated, it stifles their professional development. Besides the impact on employee career growth, this limits the firm's capacity to take on more work or handle the work it already has.
  • Promotes employee engagement and retention. Providing opportunities to learn and grow professionally are among the most valuable benefits your firm can give employees, especially junior staff. One of the top reasons younger professionals change jobs is the desire for better career growth potential. That almost always comes through delegated tasks and responsibilities. Fail to delegate well and your top junior performers are the ones most likely to leave.

Why Delegating Can Be So Hard

Despite the benefits, many managers find it difficult to delegate effectively. That certainly was the case for me when I first stepped into a management role. Some of the things I did best (e.g., writing and document design) no longer made sense for someone now expected to lead others in performing those tasks. Yet my perfectionist tendencies made it hard to let go.

If you are a manager, you've probably experienced some of the same struggles. Reasons why delegating is so challenging include:

  • Loss of control. This concern isn't just for the control freaks. Any manager who takes pride in his work is understandably going to be anxious about entrusting a portion of it to someone less experienced or relatively untested. Can that person meet your high standards? Does she know what she needs to know to do the work? It's likely going to take time to get there.
  • Upfront investment of time and patience required. When delegating to others, especially junior staff, some initial training and guidance is typically necessary. And then some patience until they gain more skill and experience. When you're busy, although you might have an acute need to delegate more, you might feel like you don't have the time to bring someone else up to speed for the work.
  • Not as good as you would have done it. While this is usually true, the question is does it need to be? Senior professionals will of course be more experienced, knowledgeable, and skilled than junior staff. But clients aren't expecting the work to be performed only by the firm's best people, and they won't pay that. The standard for quality work isn't perfection (i.e., the way you do it); it's "good enough" to meet client expectations, the industry standard of care, and applicable requirements.
  • Limited staff options to delegate tasks to. Effective delegation and proper staffing mix go hand in hand. Many A/E firms are top-heavy, with a higher ratio of senior-to-junior staff than is optimal for the work being performed. But even when firms have a decent leverage structure on paper, they often haven't done a good job developing the needed capabilities among more junior staff members. This gets back to the second point above: It takes an upfront investment to build the capacity necessary for successful delegation.
  • Some simply hoard the work. Any of the challenges listed above may cause some managers to be stingy in sharing work with others. Some don't trust colleagues to do it. Some feel they don't have the time to hand it off properly. Some are control freaks. Some don't want to give up billable hours. Whatever the reason, these reluctant delegators need to be encouraged to act in the interest of others (clients, coworkers, the firm) and not just themselves. Perhaps the benefits of delegation have never been fully understood.

Tips for Effective Delegation

Delegation is one of those team leader responsibilities that perhaps you have never carefully considered. You likely haven't been trained or even instructed in how to do it well. You probably learned what you know about it simply from experience and casual observation. Your "teachers" may well have not been that good at it themselves. Yet given the important benefits of delegating effectively, it's worth taking a closer look. Here are some tips:

Prioritize tasks to determine what to delegate and what to perform yourself. The goal, as outlined earlier, is to elevate those high-payoff activities where you have the greatest impact, creating more time for these by delegating tasks that can be capably handled by others. Beware of the pull of busyness, where you find yourself working madly to get the work done without considering whether those tasks would be better assigned to others. Take the time to order your priorities; it's worth it!

Provide important context for delegated tasks. Most of us have probably experienced being assigned tasks without knowing how our part fit into the bigger picture. This is unfortunately all too common. Understanding how one's work contributes to the overall success of the project produces multiple benefits—better quality, greater efficiency, accelerated learning, more engaged workers, to name a few. Don't just explain the task; describe the overall project and the importance of the delegated task in meeting the desired outcomes.

Encourage empowerment. The ones you're delegating to should recognize where they are empowered to make decisions and take initiative, and be encouraged to do so. That's how they grow their ability to take on greater responsibilities in the future. Resist the temptation to make all the decisions, especially with regard to personal preferences or noncritical matters. This stifles learning and professional growth, and impairs collaboration among team members.

Trust but verify. While empowerment is desirable, you don't want to set people up for failure by giving them more than they can handle. Or by not checking progress periodically. Gradually increase authority and responsibility as they demonstrate the requisite capability. Yet regardless of the team's individual or collective capabilities, you want to stay involved with them. Check in regularly to see how they're doing, keep them updated, provide feedback, and offer encouragement.

Balance teaching with self-initiated learning. As a project manager or team leader, you delegate not only to distribute the workload but to grow the team. That means you must be a coach and a teacher. This involves more than simply imparting information. You also want to facilitate learning, encouraging team members to take the initiative to teach themselves. Why? Because passive learning isn't nearly as effective in developing their thinking skills as having them figure things out themselves.

Of course, the work has to be done on time, so learning must fit within the flow of project demands. But when you need to teach, be sure to ask questions that force team members to think for themselves. That helps build the capacity that will make delegation all the more fruitful over time.