Sunday, July 24, 2016

Some thoughts on delegation

Recently, I was being pretty nosy about a project that I was not directly involved in.  I was being nosy because I was genuinely curious about a particular aspect of their project.  After a lengthy chat about this particular aspect, one of the project team members sent me an email detailing what he had found and the options that were available.  After a couple of days, I met with the team again.  It turns out, this person was waiting for my input before proceeding.  This was totally a delegation fail, and got me thinking a lot about how delegation works in the real world.

First some theory.

According to this post there are 7 levels of delegation. 
  1. Tell:  You will do what I tell you to do
  2. Sell:  You will buy what I want you to buy (but it will be your choice)
  3. Consult:  I will ask you your opinion, wait for it, and then probably ignore you anyways
  4. Agree:  We will talk endlessly for hours until we agree
  5. Advise:  I will bestow my wisdom upon you
  6. Inquire: I will ask some questions about the decision you made
  7. Delegate: I will make you responsible
 The idea is that these levels work in both ways when considered from the different view points.  Further, these delegation terms are only to be used on key decision areas, rather than particular tasks.

Delegation happens more than we think

Most of the books/articles I have read on delegation describe this task as a concrete one.  Everyone knows we are doing "delegation" here because it has been explicitly stated at the outset of the conversation

I'd argue that, based on the theory above, almost every conversation we have with other people involves some form of delegation.  If my boss asks for my opinion on a particular area of the business, am I not in the advisory state?  Is this not some form of "micro" delegation?  If I am asking questions of another project team, to better understand decisions that are being made, am I not inquiring, and expecting the other team to sell?

While it might have been a function of my place in the corporate hierarchy, the example I provided at the start may help to prove my point.  In that example, i firmly believed i was "inquiring".  From the other view point, however, they were clearly in the "consult" level. 

I think that this model of delegation could be applied to more than just the traditional situations.  For example
  • Conversations between spouses / kids
  • Conversations between co-works
  • Conversations with sales professionals
In any event, being explicit about the level of response you are looking for in a conversation could go a long way.  In the example above, I should have been explicit that I was simply inquiring.  I want to understand why decisions were being made, not insert myself in the decision making process.

 The delegation process involves more than one state

I would say that delegation can't be seen in black and white terms.  When making a decision, people will often use multiple states depending on where they are in their own though process.

I'd say the most common one would work something like this

Consult --> Sell --> Tell

For example, my boss may consult me on a particular decision.  After consulting and coming up with a decision, they would probably try and sell it.  Failing the sale, the boss would probably just dictate the direction.  

While I think that I am violating the core principles outlined in the source article, I ultimately think that this is what happens in practice.  It might be a function of the hats that everyone wears.  

For example, let's say that a boss wants to "delegate" a particular decision.  They may do that, but then immediately enter into the "advise" state as a mentor.

The point I am trying to make is that while an overall task/situation/key decision area may be subject to a particular delegation state, individual interactions during that process may be subject to different delegation states.

 Delegation is an art, not a science

In his book, Management 3.0 the author provides a checklist for use in the delegation of tasks.  The checklist is a handy way of making sure that the delegation task is explicit, and that the person you are delegating to has the right level of authority to make an actual decision.  

I think that in practice, how delegation happens (and the degree to which it does) depends on the pair of actors involved.  

Ultimately, delegation combines many aspects together such as
  • Maturity of the team
  • Level of empowerment granted
  • Competence of everyone involved
  • Constraints on the decision being made
Coming up with a strategy that works for the team and the different members of that team is probably pretty difficult.  I'd ultimately err on the side of being more explicit than implicit.  Team that have worked together for a while may find that they are more implicit (regardless of if it works better or not).