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sometimes we have to give up a little bit to move forward
“I have too much to do, and it’s not getting done”
I’ve coached and advised and listened to more managers than I can count over the years telling me a similar story about too many meetings, too many TPS reports, and too much…everything. My most common follow up is to ask how their team is doing, and they tell me that, “they’re fine, I guess, but I don’t have a lot of time for them”.
The problem is, as Michael Lopp described wonderfully in The Art of Leadership, is The New Manager Death Spiral.
As a new manager, you want to prove yourself, so you sign up for everything…This is the approach that worked well for you as an individual, so of course, it’ll work when you’re leading a team. This is where the Spiral begins…
You are used to having complete visibility and total ownership of your work because that is how it worked in your former individual contributor work life. You are instinctively reluctant to delegate your work because it represents an unfamiliar loss of power and context…
With the first admission of the reality of the situation, you begin to half-delegate the smaller, less important projects. Half-delegation is the act of giving others the work, but not full control or context.
Like you, the team then starts to fail, either because they feel they don’t have the authority to change the course of the project or because their lack of understanding of the full context around the project had them pointed in the wrong direction from day one.
Sound familiar to anyone?
Lopp goes on (seriously, read the book) with the advice to delegate more than is comfortable. This is the hard part for a lot of people - even experienced managers. But it’s absolutely critical.
Give it Away
While Lopp talks about this phenomenon in new managers, I’ve seen a failure to delegate in all levels of management - usually in one of two flavors.
I call the first flavor “I can do it better”, and it happens with a lot of senior leaders, regardless of whether they are directly managing people or not. They are busy with a lot of tasks, but don’t want to delegate anything because they can get all of these tasks done quicker, and with higher quality than anyone they work with. They don’t see the point in delegating something that won’t be done to their standards. What also happens in this scenario is that nobody else on the team has an opportunity to grow and learn from these tasks, so those folks are unhappy too. Not a great spiral, right? You have to give the work away. Let the people around you learn, and use the opportunity to practice coaching and mentoring.
The other delegation flavor managers and leaders often fall into is the helicopter manager trap. In this case, the leaders manage (or try?) to give the work away, but they can’t quite let go. They may ask you take over a project or solve a problem - but then do the project or solve the problem anyway “just in case”. In this case, the leaders still aren’t helping anyone. Their workload hasn’t decreased, and the person they’ve given the work to doesn’t even have a chance to try to figure it out. As a leader, you have to give the work away and then give people room and time. It’s hard. I know it, but it’s essential. Give it away, let people try things, let them fail, and help them try it again.
It’s worth noting that I often say “give the work away” when talking about delegation to remind people that when you delegate, you have to let people run with it. Completely. Delegating and constantly holding their hand doesn’t give them a chance to figure it out and learn. As a leader, you cannot be afraid to let people fail. Let them screw up, and then help them learn how to do it better the next time.
I’m not sure where I first heard the term (or if I used it and then read about it), but ruthless delegation is a concept I mention often. Lopp starts with delegate more than is comfortable, but I’ve gone as far to tell leaders that delegation is their job. Combine a willingness to delegate nearly everything - along with coaching and safety to fail, and it’s a fantastic opportunity to help people grow. Giving away the work will help you focus on what’s important - and I promise that you won’t run out of things to do no matter how much you give away (and I’ve tried).
Delegate like it’s your job - because it is.
It’s Not Yours
I think it was Drucker who said (something like), an individual contributor is evaluated based on their own output; a manager is evaluated on the output of their team (I’ll save output vs. outcomes for another post, but you get the point). As a leader, it’s your responsibility to enable your team’s success. Delegate / give the work away. It’s not your work, it’s ours.