Delegation 101 for Project Managers

If you work as a manager on the project, you probably have so much work on your plate every day that your to-do list is never empty. The tasks keep coming, your to-do lists inflates, and usually, your working hours do the same. At some point, the amount of work to be done becomes so big that you physically can`t complete everything on time. There are only two ways to handle this situation. The first one is to postpone some tasks constantly, leaving them undone or missing deadlines. This may work without consequences for some time with not important tasks, however, it is a slippery slope. The tasks that you define as unimportant may be a big deal for anyone else. And sooner or later, they will come to you with complaints. That’s why, from my perspective, it is better to choose another way of dealing with an enormous task list, that is delegation of your tasks.

What is delegation? Delegation vs. allocation

To understand delegation meaning, let’s figure out first what delegation is not. Imagine that you are working as a project manager on a software development project together with a team of engineers. At one point, you get a request from the project stakeholders to add a new feature to the product. Instead of doing it on your own, you assign it to the person in your team who can implement this particular feature because he is a specialist in this field. This is not a delegation, this is allocation. In short, if you give a task to a person for whom this is an appropriate piece of work to be done within his or her job responsibilities – this is allocation.

Instead, the delegation definition can be the following: it is when you’re asking another person to do the task that is supposed to be done by you based on your project role description.

Reasons to delegate and delegation benefits

Delegation skills help you to use your time effectively. Usually, project managers have a wide range of skills and experience, as well as a range of tasks that only they are capable of doing on the project. By delegating some of your duties to the other people, you free yourself up to do the things that are more important and that the others can`t do.

The second reason why delegation is a valuable project management instrument is that, when we delegate, it allows us to develop the people. Delegation of duties is a way of giving people new experiences and the opportunity to show what they can do, as well as to learn new skills. It’s also highly motivating because it shows you can trust that particular person you`re delegating to. 

Another reason why delegation is important in leadership is that when you give your work to other people, you allow them to learn how to do it, creating resilience within your project. Delegation ensures that if you`re away or on holiday, or need to be involved in some other activities, there are other people on the project who can fill in for you.

What to delegate

When you dare to start delegating your tasks to your subordinates, you may face the question, what tasks to start with. Here is the list of the types of project manager’s responsibilities and work that makes sense to delegate to other people, ranging from the easiest to start with and followed by more complex and important. 

  • Tedious recurrent and time-consuming tasks that can be taught easily.  Handover of such kinds of tasks will allow you to free up some time in your schedule for more important tasks. It may be, for example, managing product backlog, monitoring that all people are updating the status of their tasks on time.
  • Not very important and not urgent tasks that still need to be done. Such tasks will allow you to validate if you can entrust the work to the chosen delegatee. For example, you may delegate a request to collect some information from your team members, to hold a poll, etc. 
  • Urgent but not important tasks that don’t require a lot of expertise and experience. If you see that your to-do list is full and suddenly you`re getting another urgent task from your boss, you may try to range your urgent tasks by importance and delegate less important ones to your subordinates. This will allow you to focus on urgent but more important tasks and deliver them with better quality.  
    For example, if you get a request to prepare some kind of simple, but time-consuming report, you may ask someone from your team to prepare a draft, and then just review it before sending instead of wasting time on preparation.
  • Tasks that allow other people to gain the necessary skills for growth. From time to time, you may face situations when a person from your team is ready and willing to obtain a new role in the team, or there is a need to prepare a replacement for yourself. In such cases, you may start delegating tasks that allow the delegatee to master new skills and gain new experience before the transition happens. A good example from IT project management is when a Scrum Master enables other people to drive Daily Scrum Meetings.
  • Tasks that can be done better by someone else in your team. It isn’t easy to give any specific example as it depends on the context of your project. However, in general, if you`ve got a task which is in your zone of responsibility, but you definitely know that there is a person in your team, who has better expertise for this task and will do it better, it makes sense to delegate it to him or her.

7 steps of successful delegation

Let’s assume that you decided to delegate some of your tasks or responsibilities to another person. This doesn’t mean that you just hand over your work to your teammate and forget about it. In most cases, you still will be accountable for the final result of the delegated work, and consequently, you`ll be interested in the successful outcome. That’s why you have to do everything to delegate the task in such a way that the new assignee can accomplish it. 

See below a couple of tips on how to delegate effectively:

  1. Select the appropriate person to delegate the task. When you are going to delegate any particular job, it all begins with defining a person capable of doing it from your point of view. It means that the person has all the necessary skills, experience, and attitude that increase the chances of a successful outcome. 
  2. Explain the reasons for delegation. This is a tricky thing because few people will be happy with extra work or responsibility, so you need to be ready to explain to the delegatee how they benefit from the new task, be it a preparation for a new role, extra money, or whatever else. If it is a one-time task that you need to get done asap or need vacation coverage, you may ask your colleague for a one time help. But don’t take advantage of it too often.
  3. Explain the expected results. Ensure that the delegatee clearly understands what is expected as the result of a particular task or what exactly his or her new responsibilities are. 
  4. Do knowledge transfer. Set up a series of sessions where you can explain the new assignee in detail how to perform the work and what resources are needed for its completion. To ensure that everything is clear, you may ask the delegatee to articulate or even document what you teach him. 
  5. Setup regular touchpoints. This is relevant when delegating ongoing work, and only during the initial period when the new assignee most probably will stumble upon some issues or questions while performing the work so that you may provide needed assistance and keep an eye on the task.
  6. Support the delegatee on demand. Let the delegatee know that you are here to help at any time and keep this promise.
  7. Provide feedback on the work done. When it is time to accept the delegated work results or do some interim review, assess the work done by the delegatee and provide him or her with meaningful feedback, explaining what was done well and what areas could be improved for the future. Don`t forget to thank people for the work.

How not to use delegation

Delegation is a powerful instrument, however, if you`re using it wrong, it may harm your project. So, there are several caveats about how not to use delegation. 

First of all, don`t dump unpleasant and unwanted work on your subordinates. People will feel that this is unfair and will become upset, leading to poor performance or even leaving the company.

Also, never use delegation to get off the hook by passing the task, which you feel is bound to fail to somebody else so that in case of failure, not you, but they will be blamed for it. Remember that even though you delegate the task, you’re still the one who is in charge of it.

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