Guest Post by Malcolm Peart (first posted on CERM ® RISK INSIGHTS – reposted here with permission)
We have probably all uttered (or muttered) that immortal line of “if you want something done, do it yourself’ when confronted with a less than satisfactory performance from somebody else. The quote is attributable to Napoleon Bonaparte who, as an emperor, certainly found that this dream of doing everything yourself wasn’t really possible and, perhaps, his downfall may have been attributable to trying to live this dream rather than delegate effectively?
On a smaller scale it’s very difficult to run a complete project by yourself. So, as part of good project management, we have roles and responsibilities so that the work can be shared amongst the members of the team. An individual’s ‘scope’ may well be included within their job descriptions along with ‘other duties as required’ as a catch-all just in case anything is missing.
It’s the ‘missing’ that is the problem on projects – particularly when the work is not going according to plan (does it ever), a potential crisis is looming (as usual), there’s an impending deadline (as always), there are insufficient staff and it’s holiday season (inevitably), the client is changing things (as is their want), there are budget issues and looming delays (in somebody’s opinion), and the anticipated, but unplanned for, workload is peaking (unfortunately). Apart from being real life a project manager may not know how to do deal with a matter themselves, or it’s work in which they’re not interested in, or is ‘below’ them.
All of the above may be addressed through delegation, but is such delegation being done for the right reasons, and by ‘right’ I mean ethical, and has the delegation been thought through.
Trouble & Doubt
A well-known political figure in the United States, Mr James H. Boren’s advised, humorously, “When in charge, ponder; when in doubt, mumble; and when in troubledelegate“.
Although written in jest, delegation can be the proverbial kiss of death…it’s often construed as merely passing the buck with impunity and knee-jerk rapidity. Oftentimes ‘delegation’ is authorised so as to give somebody an ‘opportunity’, or to experience a ‘blooding’, or letting them ‘find their feet’ by ‘throwing them in at the deep end’. But how often are these euphemisms merely excuses to throw a sacrificial lamb to slaughter and leaving them to sink or swim.
If the lamb, who is probably grateful for recognition, is successful then the decision to delegate is heralded as ‘an excellent choice’ coupled with gifted ‘insightful vision’ and ‘good judgement’. But, in the event of failure the lamb’s ‘potential’ has been exposed and their inadequacies have been recognised before any real damage can be done…at least that’s one excuse when blame is cast.
Teflon & Politics
Some Project Managers burn the midnight oil, worry, and try to stay positive when things become difficult but they may also fear delegating any task in case it’s not done properly or their authority is undermined. However, such fear can mean ‘burn-out’ and an ingredient in that all-to-elusive recipe for a successful project fails. An inability to delegate attracts criticism and can make the difference between success and failure of a projects and their managers alike.
Then there are others who seem to sail through crises effortlessly without, seemingly, attracting any perceivable criticism or blame. Some of these project managers are practised politicians who have developed a Teflon veneer to which nothing sticks. Veneers are only skin deep and for some thick-skinned managers their Teflon overcoat is impregnable and can last a lifetime while for others their veneer quickly evaporates under the heat and glare of a political spotlight.
And then there those who create an environment of trust in which confidence can germinate and tasks may be delegated without attaching the risk of later and unfounded blame…now that’s leadership.
Delegation is not a matter of ‘passing the buck’ to a fall-guy designate and hoping that politically created Teflon will provide protection from anything and everything that hits the fan. Proper delegation involves giving the responsibility of carrying out the task to another while retaining accountability and not fearing blame; delegation is leadership thing.
Trust & Communication
Delegating is not merely instructing somebody else as to how to carry out a task – it is giving them the responsibility of carrying out that task on your behalf. Delegation demands that certain protocols are respected and for effective delegation there is a need for two-way trust and effective communication.
Effectiveness means conveying what is required and who has responsibility as well as where and when the task must be done and what reporting is required. It’s also important to explain why a task is being delegated so that there is a sense of purpose rather than just slavishly complying with an instruction. The sixth element of delegation is the how; and whilst the delegator may want to control things it may be better to agree on the ‘how’ with the delegate so ownership is reinforced.
George Bernhard Shaw once said: “The problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. A fundamental reason for failed delegation is due to ‘thinking’ or ‘assuming’ that communication has occurred through a casual conversation, an implied request, or a general cry for help through a non-specific email…nobody is telepathic and somebody needs to be told directly as everybody will assume that anybody will take responsibility.
Delegation also requires the identification of constraints and limits of responsibility. There may also be a need for coaching so the delegate, as well as the delegator understand their mutual roles and responsibilities. Then there’s the difficult part of delegation; the ‘letting go’, allowing the work to be done, and ‘giving’ trust. Demanding reports every few hours will almost certainly undermine any trust and you may as well do the work yourself…doesn’t that sound familiar.
Delegation is not just offloading unwanted work onto others or pushing those high-risk and possible reputation-damaging jobs onto somebody else in an effort to avoid blame for non-performance. Those who delegate must realise that they should bear the consequences for good or bad outcomes as well as the performance of the individuals who have been empowered.
Delegation of accountability in the hope of avoiding blame is not a leadership trait. If PMs resort to such an approach they will soon be found out and they, as well as any people who condone such action, will be found out by those who have been hung out to dry.
If project managers in charge decide to ponder and bask in their own importance then their pontification may well result in procrastination and delayed or doubtful decisions which places a project in trouble. Delegation may create the illusion that something positive is being done while in reality it’s just that somebody else has been delegated the task of ‘mumbling’!
UK Chartered Engineer & Chartered Geologist with over thirty-five years’ international experience in multicultural environments on large multidisciplinary infrastructure projects including rail, metro, hydro, airports, tunnels, roads and bridges. Skills include project management, contract administration & procurement, and design & construction management skills as Client, Consultant, and Contractor.