Win-Win Delegation


If you're a manager, you probably know what it's like to have more work than you can possibly do. However, it's unlikely you'll receive approval to hire another "you." How can you free up some time to focus on the strategic work of management? You may have an untapped resource in your group. Take a look at the career aspirations of your staff: Does anyone want to move up to be a team lead or manager? Delegating a defined chunk of management work can give someone the chance to try on a new role and learn a new skill.

I started doing management work long before I officially took a management job. One wise boss gave me a chance to practice parts of management by delegating some of his work to me. I learned about budgets, project portfolios, and strategic planning long before I made the transition into management. (I never did enjoy budgets, but at least I knew how they worked.) My boss used delegation to create a win-win situation: I learned valuable skills, and he had more time to focus on other priorities.

When you start looking at your workload, first determine if the work is really important. Better to get rid of busy work completely than delegate it to someone else. Make sure that the work you are delegating will buy you significant time and create a learning opportunity for your staff member.

Match Skills to the Task
Match the work and the recipient carefully. You want to provide a chance to learn a new skill and practice it, not create an impossible task. Someone who is good at planning and organizing her own work might be a good candidate for taking on one of your small projects. A staff member who enjoys analyzing defect data might be a good candidate for gathering metrics and creating trend reports.

Determine How Much to Delegate
Decide how much of the task you're handing off. Are you interested only in the end product, or do you want to check-in on intermediate steps? Look at the skills and experience of the person you're delegating to and formulate the delegation appropriately. Consider delegating in steps. For example, when you delegate a project to select a new defect-tracking tool, first delegate the investigation, then generating alternatives, and finally making a recommendation.

Explain Why
Describe how the task fits into the big picture, why it's important, and who benefits from the work. Providing a rationale will help the person assuming the task develop judgment and understanding. Without the why people are only learning what to do, not how the task adds value and benefits the organization. And people make better decision when they understand the context.

Delegate Authority with the Task
Make sure the person has the authority to accomplish the work. Telling the team member isn't enough. Other people in the group must know that you've delegated the task as well. One tester I know complained that her boss had delegated the job of collecting status to her without telling the rest of the team. When she went to talk to her teammates about progress, they responded by asking, "Who died and made you queen?" The boss had made her status queen—but hadn't bothered to tell anyone. Handing over the work without the authority is a set up for friction, frustration, and failure.

About the author

Esther Derby's picture Esther Derby

A regular and Better Software magazine contributor, Esther Derby is one of the rare breed of consultants who blends the technical issues and managerial issues with the people-side issues. She is well known for helping teams grow to new levels of productivity. Project retrospectives and project assessments are two of Esther's key practices that serve as effective tools to start a team's transformation. Recognized as one of the world's leaders in retrospective facilitation, she often receives requests asking her to work with struggling teams. Esther is one of the founders of the AYE Conference. She co-author of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. She has presented at STAREAST, STARWEST and the Better Software Conference & EXPO. You can read more of Esther's musings on the wonderful world of software at and on her weblog at Her email is

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