Managing Work

Here is the background on this series, and here is the previous post on this series (Managing 1-1s).

In this post, we are going to try answering the question: While Ravi is the smartest guy and the leader in the team, he is also the bottleneck. How can he manage his work (delegation or empowerment for example?) so that he still has time for himself and his family?

For a manager, managing work is one of the most important activities that determine the results that the team achieves. It is also one of the easiest, and best, ways of measuring the performance of the manager and that of the team, as is clear from the way most performance reviews are conducted. Due to these reasons, work management tends to be topmost on the mind of a manager, and consumes most of his/her time. Our goal in this post is to explore some of the ways to make this an efficient activity and save time without sacrificing value that the manager provides by getting involved.

Some of the reasons why a manager has to get involved in day-to-day activities so extensively are as follows:

  1. Uneven capabilities of team members: In most large teams, individual skills and abilities of team members vary a lot. This makes it hard for the manager to distribute work and/or delegate it without keeping an eye on how the individual is performing. Depending on the relative expertise of team members and how well the team is formed, the manager may end up spending significant time in managing the actual execution of the work allocated to individuals.
  2. Technical leadership: Often, the manager is also the technical lead of the team and hence he/she needs to offer the leadership and expertise to the team members who need it. Most of the time, the way this is done is via problem-solving and troubleshooting, which tend to take lots of time for resolution.
  3. Work prioritization: Most technical team members struggle with too many tasks and too little time in the day (only 24 hours!). On top of it, new tasks keep coming up and old tasks have the habit of becoming less or more important as situations change. It is hard for each team member to do a consistent and accurate prioritization of tasks and hence they need to manager’s input to do this correctly. The more dynamic the environment, the more is the demand on manager’s time.
  4. Decision-making: In most organizations, managers retain the decision-making powers. This is obvious, because it is hard to be accountable for a decision if you do not make those decisions, and a manager is accountable for every decision being made in the team. Depending on the style of decision making (which is a separate topic on its own), it will require the manager to spend a lot of time in making decisions, or less time in making them but more time in getting the team to accept it. Either way, significant time is spent in decision-making for a manager.

Of these reasons, first 2 are about lack of sufficient expertise and skills in the team and the most viable solution (though it takes time) is to develop that expertise (or hire for it). Most managers are (or should be) adept at this, even though the day-to-day rush of getting things done does not allow them to spend time on developing expertise.

Next 2, however, are more interesting. Even with an experienced team, these 2 can suck up lots of time from managers. One of the ways I have found some managers to handle this in the past is to delegate and/or empower some of the individuals so that some of these decisions can be offloaded. However, I have noticed that delegation and empowerment as concepts (and as words) are used interchangeably, and hence sometimes cause confusion in the mind of these individuals who are supposed to work on manager’s behalf. Read this and this for a good discussion on the topic. Here are the definitions I like to use for these two words, and hence distinguish them:

  • Delegation: The act of handing over a task ownership to someone else. Delegate is responsible for execution of the task and manages any decision-making that needs to be done in the context of this task. Anything significant or beyond the scope of the task is usually escalated to the manager for proper decision-making. Since tasks are rarely independent, this means that manager still gets involved most of the time.
  • Empowerment: The act of handing over a complete project or work item ownership to someone else. Empowered person is responsible for planning, design and execution of tasks needed to get the work done. Since a project can be independent from other projects (especially when it is chosen carefully), empowered person usually exercise significant decision-making and needs to involve the manger much less than in the delegation scenario.

In a way, delegation is empowerment of a reduced-scope work and both of these can be considered to be different measures on the scale of ‘giving control’.

I find it more useful to think of delegation as a very different management technique than empowerment so that we can recognize and address different demands they make (to the manager and to the report). Delegation can usually be successfully done to a smart techie, this requires the person to be self-managed and independent worker. For the manager, it is easy to do because he/she is losing very little control. In empowerment case, the report needs to be someone who can take good decisions and work with ambiguities and incomplete data, in addition to being smart, self-managed and independent. This is also hard for manager because it requires giving up good amount of control and having trust in the report. Choosing when to delegate, when to empower (and when to do neither) is an important skill to learn because wrong pairing of people-control mix can be worse than not giving any control at all. Following is a representation of what I have observed to be the case about this mix:

Decision-making and work prioritization are good skills for a budding manager, and hence if a manager uses delegation and empowerment appropriately, he/she will develop next level of leads and managers, which will further help reduce the time he/she needs to spend.

In the next post, I will talk about managing expectations from various stakeholders in the organization. Stay tuned!

4 thoughts on “Managing Work

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