For every leader, there comes a time when you realize that you can’t outwork the number of hours in a day.
The number of hours in a working day is a limit I’ve bumped into several times, most notably after becoming a principal data scientist and after having a baby. When I hit these walls, I realized I needed to make a change in how I was managing my time. I needed to reprioritize, identify work that I could let go of, and decide what to do with that work.
Enter delegation. It took me a few rounds of reluctantly delegating projects to realize that delegation isn’t just a way to move tasks from one person’s plate to another’s; it can be a key strategic lever. Delegation is necessary soil for growth – for your own growth, for those around you, and for your organization. To grow into a new phase, you need to evolve your established responsibilities and make space for new ones.
Sharing your legos is hard
Giving up an area of work that is carved out as uniquely ‘yours’ isn’t easy.
It’s normal to feel anxious about sharing your legos especially if they are special to you. Perhaps they’re projects you’ve built from the ground up, areas of influence you've enjoyed, or responsibilities that you’ve been comfortable owning.
Freeing up your time to work on new important things can feel like giving up your safety net, especially if you’re walking away from areas where you’ve established your value.
To get around this, I suggest taking a Marie Kondo approach: be thankful for the experience and what you’ve learned, and move on to the next opportunity for growth and learning.
Figuring out what to delegate
The process of figuring out what to delegate is similar to figuring out what to prioritize. I find it helpful to start by making a list of the tasks that are your responsibility. Then, determine whether the task is a candidate for delegation by asking yourself these questions:
- Is this task something that only I am uniquely able to do?
- Do I need to perform this task because of a limiting constraint (for example, you’re running out of time or only you understand the context)?
- Should I be the person responsible for this task, or is there someone better suited?
If the task is something that you are uniquely able to do because of your position, it is a component of your work and you should do it.
If you need to perform the task because of a limiting constraint, you should do it this time around. Once the limiting constraint has been lifted (either actively by you or passively by circumstance), reconsider whether it is a candidate for delegation by repeating the process.
If the task is outside of your core areas of responsibility but you’re still on the hook for it, it’s a good candidate for delegation to the correct person or area.
Narrowing down your list
Once you have your list of candidates for delegation, you can decide how to proceed with each one: keep, delegate (now or later), or drop altogether. To do this, ask yourself these questions:
- Does this work really need to be done?
- Could this work be automated (via code, documentation, or process)?
- Have I learned all that I can from my time owning this work?
- Is there someone else who would benefit from the experience of owning this work?
- Do I want to be the subject matter expert in this area?
If the work doesn’t really need to be done, stop doing it (and communicate why to the folks involved). If you can automate it, consider that option.
If you’ve learned all that you can from owning the work and you aren’t required to own it, consider the opportunity cost of spending additional time on it – especially if there is someone else in your organization who could benefit from it.
I’ve found it helpful to frame delegation as something I’m giving – an opportunity for someone else to gain experience in an area or take on a new responsibility – rather than something I’m giving up. Sometimes leadership means giving up a wanted experience or opportunity so that someone else can have it.
Similarly, consider the implications of holding onto tasks in areas where you do not want to build further subject matter or technical expertise. Delegation here is an opportunity to focus your time and energy on those areas where it makes sense for you to grow.
Getting the handover right
The best advice I’ve received about transitioning work is to delegate outcomes, not tasks.
Entrusting an outcome to someone new gives them the opportunity to revamp and improve the process, and own the work in a way that works for them while accomplishing the end goal.
Here are a few more pieces of advice that I’ve found helpful for transitioning work:
- Document the current process, success criteria, timelines for handover, and any other relevant information
- As part of delegating outcomes, give as much contextual information as possible about the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ behind the task, as well as the organizational impact
- Provide support as needed while the new person or team is ramping up on any transitioned work, and be available for inevitable questions
Delegation is a superpower worth mastering. It’s a powerful tool for fueling your professional growth, as well as the growth of your organization and those around you. Evaluating tasks for delegation is a great way to make sure that your time is spent on the right kind of work, and an opportunity to reflect on and improve current processes. When you do delegate, remember to focus on delegating outcomes and not tasks. Give people the support and flexibility to own new problems, and enjoy the opportunity to learn and grow in your own work.