Salvaging a project you delegated

Last updated on 10th June 2021.

You are trying to be a good team lead, so you delegate. When a big, important task lands on your desk, you delegate it, knowing that it will be empowering for the IC you delegate it to. But, even as you hand over responsibility for doing the task, you remain accountable for its successful completion to the wider organisation. So if the task doesn't get done well enough, it will reflect badly on you.

As the task progresses, you start getting that sinking feeling. The IC doesn't seem to understand what they're supposed to be doing. Progress is sporadic, and lots of energy is wasted in avenues that prove to be dead-ends. In your catch-up, the IC asks questions that don't seem relevant. And you're so busy with a hundred other things that you only check in once a week.

Now we're three weeks into what was meant to be a five week project, and things still haven't got off the ground. What do you do?

As team leads, our natural reaction is to panic. We take back full control, go into autocrat mode and try to salvage the process by ourselves. It’s a natural reaction: after all, if we had been doing it, it wouldn't have gone wrong. The IC let us down, and now we need to step in and fix it.

No! This instinctual reaction is so disempowering, not just for the IC but for the whole team. Your team will feel that you gave unclear directions, failed to help, didn't spend enough time and then, at the last minute, acted like a bull in a china shop, disrupting everything just because it wasn't to your liking.

The right way to fix the problem is to spend more time with the IC. This task is important, so clear your schedule. Delegate other things to make time, or let some things drop. Use the time to set up working sessions where you and the IC work together on components of the task. These working sessions are great for communicating context and goals. And working together with someone is great for building trust.

If these working sessions aren't enough and progress remains too slow, work with the IC to split the work into pieces and identify other team members who can help with each piece. Resist the urge to break the work down and distribute it yourself. Instead, help the IC ask for help. Make sure the IC feels in control of splitting out the work and distributing it.

Yes, this is almost certainly slower than fixing the problem yourself. So, to be able to do this, you need to both catch the problem early enough, and have enough slack time in your schedule to address this properly.

The rewards are huge: the IC will feel like they've turned what was clearly a difficult task into a success, and they will trust you to help them in the future. In turn, this increased trust means they are more likely to seek feedback in the future, leading to virtuous cycles where you can fix problems early, leading to more successes that engender even more trust.

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