Delegate responsibilities to systems, not tasks to people

Most leaders think of delegation as shifting tasks or responsibilities from one individual to another (e.g., “I don’t have time to do something, so I’m going to give it to one of my tech leads”). This attitude towards delegation entrenches single points of failure and does little towards building robust systems and ways of working for your team. The ideal way to approach delegation is to delegate responsibilities (not tasks) to rituals or ways of working rather than specific people.

To delegate to a ritual is to integrate a job into the ways of working for a team, as opposed to shifting a responsibility to an individual. For example:

By integrating responsibilities into your team’s work, you can create an incredibly robust and versatile team by eliminating single points of failure. Suppose only one person in your team tends to a specific task (e.g., only tech leads carry out code reviews). In that case, you are creating operational risk in your business because momentum will slow down or even halt should that person go on leave or exit the business. Teams should be able to operate without managers and key people, who should be more focused on evolving how the team operates than completing critical tasks themselves.

Shared responsibilities are also natural ways for individuals to become more capable over time. By encouraging all team members to contribute to jobs traditionally owned by management (e.g., quality control of code or customer interactions), you can more passively train your team members. This is great for the career development of individuals and the growth of the business. Additionally, the ownership of these tasks encourages individual contributors to think and behave more like leaders, which leads to better outcomes for the team thanks to improved creativity and ownership.

One of the risks of this type of delegation is that managers tend to overload existing teams with new streams of work that should instead sit with a new group. Sometimes, shared responsibilities can be excessively burdensome on the team and reduce their ability to focus on their core responsibilities. Teams and individuals work best when working towards a single goal; each of their responsibilities contributes towards this and comes from the same backlog of work. When teams start to juggle multiple goals, especially if these goals require very different approaches, they will usually fail at one or both. For example, individual salespeople owning outbound and inbound sales will usually fail because these functions address very different problems in different ways. Similarly, front-end developers who also own user experience design will often struggle because it is difficult to manage two backlogs of work at once (i.e., things that must be designed and things that must be developed).

Here are some other scenarios where responsibilities should be split into new teams rather than shared by a single team:

Many leaders view their responsibilities as a list of leadership and management tasks they need to complete. This mindset ignores that the best way for a team to get most things done is through shared ownership and leadership. Managers should ensure the vital work gets done, but they should be open-minded about who does it. Where possible, it is better to delegate (to a shared responsibility rather than an individual) than do it yourself because this builds a repeatable system that depends on a team rather than any individual. This is the best way for leaders to create value that will outlast their tenure at the company.

8 August, 2022

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