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The delegation conundrum

How managers should quit their inner problem-solver to efficiently delegate and free up their time

Daniel Jarjoura

One of the main challenges engineering leaders have to address, especially now with their teams out of sight, is their difficulty to delegate. Not necessarily because they think their team won’t be able to come up with the right solution (though it happens), but because, way too often, when confronted with a new problem, engineering leaders unconsciously go back to their default role, the problem-solver. They don’t even realise they should have been delegating that task and tackle it right away.

After all, engineers are trained to be problem solvers. It was even their problem-solving skill that allowed them to be successful before becoming managers. So it’s only natural that the problem-solver resurfaces when there’s a new challenge to address.

I also believe there’s a social pressure problem.

In one episode of the TV series Suits, Harvey Specter (the lead character) goes into the managing director’s office, only to find him doing crosswords.

I love the managing director’s answer (portrayed by Conleth Hill) when asked why he’s doing crossword puzzles instead of working: “My dear fellow, if I have to do work, then I'm not doing my job.”

Overwork is not a skill, it’s an organisational shortcoming

As shocking as it may seem, I absolutely agree with the managing director’s answer. Too often, I see managers running from meetings to conference calls, trying to grasp each free minute to answer the hundreds of emails they receive every day or putting together this last-minute report they were asked for yesterday.

So, to keep themselves “busy” or by fear of becoming irrelevant, managers just keep adding to their plate, only to end up with half-baked solutions that would be obvious to everyone in the team but them. Like this leader I work with, who had taken the responsibility to organize his team’s monthly lunch, only to end up the D day with no reservations because he was so overwhelmed by other tasks 😅

On the contrary, engineering leaders should devote most of their time to making time. Each new task or challenge should go through a Responsibility assignment matrix that could work like this:

  • Who in the team is skilled to address this issue?
  • Can I use this new task as an opportunity to upskill someone in the team?
  • Should I be the one answering this question or can we do a quick (<15 minutes) team meeting to address it?
  • Is this task going to be repeated? Can we automate it?
  • Is it really necessary for me to attend this meeting or can someone from the team go?
  • ...

If leaders do their job well, 90% of incoming requests should go to their team. Of course, it’s easier said than done, especially if their company is going through hyper-growth or major changes.

Give Away Your Legos

In a discussion I had with Charles Gorintin, the co-founder and CTO of European InsureTech Alan (see the video here in French), he told me that his job, as a leader, was to make himself obsolete every 6 months to be able to grow as fast as his company.

That’s also the advice of Molly Graham, a former leader at Google and Facebook during their hyper-growth years: “The best metaphor I have for scaling is building one of those huge, complex towers out of Legos,” she says. “At first, everyone’s excited. Scaling a team is a privilege. Being inside a company that’s a rocket ship is really cool. There are so many Legos! You could build anything. In the beginning, as you start to scale, everyone has so many Legos to choose from — they’re doing 10 jobs — and they’re all part of building something important.”

At a scaling company, giving away responsibility — giving away the part of the Lego tower they started building — is the only way for engineering leaders to move on to building bigger and better things.

Of course, delegating without coaching team members how to deal themselves with time management and automation (delegation for individual contributors) isn’t right. The idea here is not to reproduce the 20th-century idea of managers doing nothing and workers doing everything. When they’re able to efficiently delegate, leaders should help their team better manage their time and avoid overwork as well.

In summary

  • Not being “busy” is a sign that managers efficiently delegate
  • Managers should work on making themselves obsolete (“giving away their Legos”) every couple of months when experiencing hyper-growth
  • With this newly found time, managers should coach team members on time management and automation to avoid being overworked

Additional resources

If you’re interested to get more content about delegation, I recommend the following resources:

📖Turn The Ship Around- by David Marquet, a former US Navy captain (I’m currently reading the book)

📄‘Give Away Your Legos’ and Other Commandments for Scaling Startups- a First Round Capital interview of Molly Graham (mentioned above)

💻Getting in control and creating space- a TED talk by David Allen, the best-selling author of Getting Things Done

Project Management