Category Archives: Delegation Skills

How to Delegate, Not the Right Question

“I guess I am feeling a little burned out,” Cynthia said. “There is just so much to do, now that I am a manager. I feel stretched, way stretched.”

“How did the manager, before you, handle all of this workload?” I asked.

“Oh, that was different. I am still working all my old job responsibilities, plus my new responsibilities as manager.” Cynthia stopped. “So, I am working twice as hard. No wonder I feel burned out.”

“Who do you plan to give your old responsibilities to?”

“Well, I am trying,” Cynthia continued. “I just haven’t figured out how.”

“Wrong question,” I said.

“What?” Cynthia was startled.

“Wrong question,” I nodded. “You will never make any headway figuring out how. You will only make headway when you figure out who. The solution is almost never a how, it’s almost always a who.”

“So, I should stop trying to figure out how I am going to get it all done and focus on who is going to do it?” Cynthia was surprised at her own question.

She knew the answer.

Increase Your Leverage Ratio

“I don’t understand. Delegation saves time,” Julio puzzled.

“Yes, but let’s change the leverage point,” I replied. “Instead of thinking about the benefits to you, as a manager, what are the benefits to the person you delegate to?”

Julio was thinking. He nodded. “Well, they will be able to take on more responsibility?”

“Okay, but how does that benefit the team member?”

“They may learn something new. Gain a new skill. Try something they have never tried before. It might lay the groundwork for a promotion.”

“And if they are successful at this new skill, how much time will that save you?” I asked.

Julio sat back. Chuckling. “If they really learn it, could save me a hundred hours.”

“And that’s the leverage I am talking about. You work for one hour, get a hundred hours of productivity.”

Delegation Chump Change

“Every manager first thinks of delegation as a Time Management tool,” I said. “And it is powerful, but not if you think about it in terms of Time Management.”

Julio nodded that he was listening but I could see the skepticism in his eyes.

“You think you can save an hour here or there, but that is chump change compared to the leverage available. Julio, tell me, what are the major benefits to you, as a manager, when you are able to effectively delegate?”

“Okay,” Julio started. “If I can delegate, I can spend more time working on more important things. I can get more done. I may be able to get enough done to take off a little early, maybe take a full half-hour for lunch. I would have time to start on projects that have been sitting on the back burner. I would have more time for coaching and planning.”

“And that’s the problem.” I countered.

Julio looked at me sideways.

Delegation Leverage

Julio continued to resist. “The biggest problem with delegation is that it takes too long to explain what I want done. In less time, I can finish the project myself and I don’t have to worry about any loose ends dangling.”

“What is the purpose for delegation?” I asked. “Why am I so insistent that you should delegate more often?”

“That’s easy. Delegation is all about Time Management. But, that’s not my experience. I spend a half hour explaining something that takes me fifteen minutes to do. How is that Time Management?”

“What kind of leverage are you trying to get when you delegate?”

“Well, if I can unload something that takes me an hour to do, then that saves an hour,” he explained. “But if it takes me a half hour to explain, or review the work, then that leverage is 2 to 1.”

“That’s a good start, but you should be looking to gain more leverage. You should be able to work for one hour and get five hours productivity. A better target would be to work for one hour and get ten hours productivity.”

Julio looked puzzled.

Back In My Lap

“I don’t know,” Julio replied. “I try to delegate as often as I can, but it always ends up, back in my lap.”

“Does it seem like you delegate things to your team on Monday and then your team delegates back to you on Wednesday?” I asked.

“I never thought about it that way, but you’re right. It’s almost like reverse delegation. They get stuck with a problem, come to me for help and before you know it, they are out the door with their project on my desk.”

“How does that happen?” I pressed.

Faster to Do It Myself

“I know I need to delegate more often, and I try, but I gotta tell you, I am not happy with some of the results,” Julio explained. “It takes longer to delegate than to do it myself. And half the time, I have to come back in, take over the project and begin again. It’s frustrating.”

“And what else?” I asked.

“You want me to go on?” he replied.

I nodded.

“I don’t trust them. I have a great team, but they let me down too often. We have a mission critical project and I try to get some help and it’s always me having to save the day.”

“Why do you think that happens?”

What to Keep, What to Delegate?

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Knowing that Time Span is part of who we are but also develops with maturity, is there anything a manager can do to help a team member develop his/her highest potential Time Span?

If you remove the words Time Span from your question, we have an age-old managerial quest, how to develop team members to their fullest potential?

Conceptually, Time Span gives us a way of measuring complexity related to a task assignment. In what ways can a manager help (influence, cajole, coach) a team member to develop their Applied Capability to more effectively complete task assignments?

Here’s my general advice. If you want to develop a person (or a team), give them a real problem to solve. Exercises, ropes courses, contrived case studies fit nicely in MBA programs, but there is nothing like a real problem to stimulate real growth.

Beginning managers know they need to delegate, so they pick off pieces of usually meaningless, make-work stuff and pass it off, keeping the tough stuff, the meaningful stuff for themselves. In the beginning of a manager’s career, deciding what to keep and what to delegate is a difficult decision.

Time Span is the measuring stick to help a manager make that decision. Inspecting the “by when” of a task assignment gives us insight into the complexity of that task. Developing a team member is a process of assigning increasingly complex Time Span task assignments. Paying attention to the Time Span of tasks gives a manager a way of organizing the developmental process. It makes coaching more scientific.

Brilliantly Professional

From the Ask Tom mailbag.


I have just joined a new company as a project manager and another PM has been assigned as my manager. While this person has been with the company for a while, he is not that far ahead of me technically, though he knows some of the ins and outs of our clients. My problem is that I have been here for a week and a half and, though I have approached him several times about assignments, he continues to keep everything to himself. I am getting tired of staring at my computer screen. I don’t want to go around him, but I don’t know what I can do.


Your manager is obviously more interested in task oriented work rather than management oriented work. Project Managers manage projects, not people, so he may not even know what to do, or how to manage you.

Whatever his reasons are, it really doesn’t matter. The first obstacle you have to overcome is, lack of trust. You have to get to know him. And I am not talking about warm and fuzzy stuff, this can be brilliantly professional. Grab him at a coffee break, before or after work and try these questions:

  • Where did you go to school?
  • How did that prepare you, for your career as a project manager?
  • What attracted you to project management?
  • What is the most interesting project you have ever completed?
  • What part of your job do you find the most satisfying? (Hint, he is likely to also tell you the part he finds the least satisfying…which may be your entry into an assignment for some productive work).

Ask him what the most appropriate first assignment might be. Would it be a small project on your own, a segment of a larger project, or simply a small task in a larger segment?

Each day, ask him if there is some small thing that you could do for him that would be truly helpful. It doesn’t have to be a huge assignment, yet something you can successfully complete that begins to build the trust. It might even be an administrative task like collecting all the projects in a list and tagging the status of each project, who is working on it, etc. (This will be helpful to you, because you will know about projects in-house). Good luck, keep us updated on your progress.

How to Work Harder Without Working Longer

Emily’s white board had been in place for three days when I got the call. The tone in her voice was quite cheery.

“My team is absolutely amazing,” she reported. “The first day was tough because production was pretty much the same as before. The daily target was 175 units and we only managed to produce 86. I thought the team would implode, but when I got to work the next day, they were all there early and the line was already running. Instead of shutting down the line for break, they took breaks one at a time to keep things moving. We still only got 110 units, but they saw the improvement. Yesterday, they changed a couple of more things and we produced 140 units.

“What’s funny,” she continued. “All I have done, as a manager, is post the target number on the board in the morning and make comments about their improvement. All the changes, they have done on their own. It’s like everything has shifted. This is no longer my problem. They are working to fix it like it is their problem.”

“And, what about your morale problem?” I asked.

Emily’s face curled into a smile, “Oh, I don’t think the problem was morale.”

Tasks Only You Can Do

“With those two purposes for delegation, time management and people development, where is the leverage, for the manager?” I asked.

It’s a lizard eye question, destined to create silence in the room. The answer to that question requires a series of more specific questions.

“If your purpose for delegation is time management and you delegate a task that saves you one hour, how much time have you saved?”

“One hour,” someone shouted out. “As long as you didn’t have to explain it. But if it took ten minutes to explain, you only saved 50 minutes.”

“You must have been a math major,” I replied. “So, the relative leverage for delegation, if your purpose is time management is 1/1, as long as you don’t have to explain much.” I stopped to survey the room. Heads were nodding in agreement.

“And if your purpose for delegation is people development and you delegate a task that saves you one hour every week, in a years’ time, how much time did you save?”

“Fifty two hours,” shouted the math major.

“And so, if it took an entire hour to explain this one task, that now saves you 52 hours over one year, what is your leverage?”

The math major was still on his game. “52/1,” he announced. “And if this delegated task saved you one hour a day, your leverage for the year would be 260/1.”

“Now we are talking leverage. If your purpose for delegation is time management, your leverage is likely closer to 1/1, but if your purpose for delegation is people development, your leverage is huge. When I work with CEOs, I am always looking for leverage, where they work for an hour and gain 500 or 1000 hours of productivity. The only way to gain that kind of leverage is through developing team members to assume responsibility for tasks and roles that you think only you can do.”