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InfoQ Homepage News How to Supercharge a Team with Delegation: QCon London Q&A

How to Supercharge a Team with Delegation: QCon London Q&A

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Delegating work can result in getting it done better and faster; it increases team autonomy and creates opportunities for learning. Delegation is a continuum; it begins by doing a task yourself and ends by having somebody else take on that task.

James Stanier, VP of Engineering at Brandwatch, spoke about delegating to self-organizing teams at QCon London 2020.

Before you understand good delegation, you need to understand the difference between accountability and responsibility, Stanier mentioned. Accountability means that it’s on you to ensure that the task gets done to the correct quality and on time. Responsibility means that you’re the one actually doing that task. Understanding and using those definitions is crucial to high performing teams.

If you want to do bigger things in your career, you have to become comfortable with letting go of control, Stanier said. There will be things that you can’t control, and for such things you shouldn’t worry about the outcome. According to Stainer, being comfortable with being uncomfortable is important.

InfoQ interviewed James Stanier about supercharging teams with delegation.

InfoQ: With self-organizing teams, do we still need delegation?

James Stanier: Of course! Delegation can be put into practice by both managers and individual contributors. Regardless of whether a team is self-organizing or not, somebody is accountable for the work, and the output of that team should be front of mind. By delegating work to other people, things can get done better, faster and it can create an opportunity for learning.

Good delegation brings teams together. A senior member of staff can delegate a task to a less experienced colleague so that they create a mentoring and learning opportunity. A manager can delegate work to the right person for the same reasons. Most importantly, good delegation ensures that common panics and anxieties that often happen with teamwork don’t rear their ugly head! These often manifest in micromanagement, stress, burnout, worry and - worst of all - managers stealing work back and doing it themselves.

If you understand delegation, then you can spot when and where bad delegation happens, and also how to fix it. We’ve all worked with managers or people who have been completely unable to delegate anything at all, and therefore run around with their hair on fire all the time, or we have people who are at the other end of the spectrum who blindly forward every piece of work to other people. Those are bad cases on both ends of the delegation spectrum, and fixing it isn’t hard once you’ve got the basics down.

InfoQ: How does delegation work for distributed teams?

Stanier: Delegation is even more important for distributed teams. With staff having to work with team members in different locations and time zones, clear, well-managed delegation and understanding between team members are the backbone of work getting done. Carefully thinking about the skills of staff, and the types of tasks that need to be completed, ensure that everyone’s workload is balanced, challenging enough, and rewarding. Delegation spectrum

By using the delegation framework from the talk, teams can operate with supportive connective tissue between everything that they’re doing. Managers can feel confident that work is getting done with the right amount of touchpoints, and staff can ensure they’ve got the right work for them.

This is because delegation is a continuum: it begins by doing a task yourself and it ends by having somebody else do that task. However, along this continuum are many opportunities for clear communication, check-ins, mentorship and learning. Getting it right benefits both parties.

InfoQ: How can we increase the autonomy of teams with delegation?

Stanier: Being autonomous means getting the right kind of work: the work that suits your skill set, the work that you’re passionate about doing, and the work that is challenging enough to have you learn and grow whilst you’re doing it. By delegating (and being delegated to) well, each team member can get the opportunity to be more autonomous, to not be micromanaged, and to have the right level of support from the person who is accountable for the completion of that task.

InfoQ: How does delegation tie into learning and mentorship?

Stanier: Delegation doesn’t just have to be about simply getting things done. Theory suggests that there is a sweet spot for learning. Tasks that an individual can complete with some guidance from others produce the best learning outcome. If delegation happens from a more experienced member of staff to one with less experience, we can capitalize on this sweet spot: "I’m giving this to you so you can learn how to do it, and I’ll help you."

InfoQ: What antipatterns do you see for delegation and how can we deal with them?

Stanier: There are two classic cases at either end of the delegation scale. One is the person who will fire and forget. They give someone something to do, then totally forget about it. That’s abdicating from accountability, and that’s bad! On the other end of the scale, you have the person who is totally unable to give up control: the micromanager. Their anxiety over control prevents them from ever delegating anything properly, or even worse, stealing it back if it is done too slowly or not in the same way that they would do the task. Both of these can be dealt with by applying delegation in the right way.

InfoQ: What’s your advice for applying delegation with agile teams?

Stanier: Look at the framework, then discuss it with the whole team. How are tasks currently being delegated compared to it? Is any explicit delegation happening at all? Often studying it in a bit more detail will unfurl a whole host of peculiarities in the way in which teams get things done. Perhaps there are individuals who want more challenging work and it will give more senior staff a chance to delegate and mentor. Perhaps there are manifestations of fire and forget that are making tasks drop through the cracks. It’s a fun and useful exercise to reflect upon!

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