We all know that to get the best results we must optimize the way we spend our time and focus on the most important aspects of the project. Some project managers are excellent at prioritizing and focusing on proactive activities such as planning, mitigating risks, building relationships, motivating the team and learning about the business. They have learnt to overcome procrastination and consistently put the important over the urgent. They use delegation and collaboration as effective tools to train and grow others, which in turn frees them up to provide management and leadership to the project. But that’s far from the norm.
Many project managers have difficulties finding time to be proactive. They start out with good intentions but soon get caught up in the flood of urgent requests and let the influx of queries define their day. Meetings have to be attended, issues resolved, and fires put out, and before they know it the day has passed. They got a lot done but it wasn’t necessarily the work they had hoped for. As Steven Covey wrote in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
‘It is incredibly easy to get caught up in the activity trap, in the busyness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall. It is possible to be busy – very busy – without being very effective’.
Operating in a reactive mode quickly becomes a vicious circle. There is no time to look ahead and build a strong foundation for the future, meaning that more issues crop up which require our urgent attention. We live in a time when we are constantly accessible via phone, email and social media, and where it is expected that we instantly respond and get back to people. It takes a great deal of courage to go against the flow; to sometimes switch off the email, find a quiet space to work from, and decline a meeting request if our time is better spent elsewhere. But sometimes that is exactly what is needed. If you don’t take time out to plan the project and understand how it will ultimately benefit the users and how you can gain buy-in from senior decision-makers, who will?
Learn to delegate
One of the most significant changes you can make, that will instantly help you spend more time on proactive activities, is to delegate more to your team. Some of the biggest stumbling blocks that project managers face when it comes to delegation, is that they either don’t feel they have anyone to delegate to or that they believe they have to know it all and do it all by themselves. They want to be in control of the detail and therefore have little faith that someone else can carry out the task as well as they can. But it is essential that you learn to delegate and build up other people’s ability to handle the detail if you want to be an effective project manager. Controlling the detail is a symptom of micro management. Your role is not to know it all and do it all but to enable your team to operate to the best of its ability.
The question you need to ask is “how”. How can you start to delegate some of the day-to-day activities and thereby free yourself up to attend to your management and leadership role? There is always a way to do it, but you must be prepared that things will be done differently – and maybe even better – than if you did them. You also need to accept that delegating to others will require some up front investment of your time because you will have to train people. You can’t expect others to pick up a new task and to run with it without first having been supervised, trained or mentored.
What activities should you be delegating?
When you begin to pass on tasks to your team, make sure that you don’t delegate the 20% of activities that add to 80% of your successes. Those activities should remain with you. The most obvious tasks to start delegating are administrative tasks of which there are many on a project; timesheet tracking, financial tracking, keeping the document repository up to date, taking minutes, creating newsletters etc. It is essential that these activities are done, but it is not essential that you do them. Someone else is likely to be better skilled – and eager – to do this than you. So get a project administrator on board, or ask the project management office (PMO) for help if you have one. If not, you may have to create a business case for why a project administrator – or a more junior project manager – should be added to the team. Take some time to ponder that thought. Is it possible that the person you need to delegate to is not yet part of your team and that you need to create a case for it?
The other areas you can consider delegating are detailed planning, decision-making and execution of specific work streams. Initially you may not feel that your team-leaders are fully qualified to do this, but by gradually handing over the work, and supporting them in the process, you will find that they quickly rise to the challenge. Many managers make the mistake of handing over a task too quickly without making it clear what kind of outcomes they expect and without regularly supporting or checking in with the person they have delegated to. When they later find that the task wasn’t done to the standard they expected, they quickly take back control of the assignment.
Make the outcome as SMART as possible
When you delegate a task – or an entire job role – take time to think through what you expect to be done and what results you want. Then give people the support they need to succeed. A good way to motivate people you delegate to is to provide a stretch by making your expectations clear and setting the standards high. Agree a deadline and make the outcome as measurable as possible. At the same token you have to provide them with all the support they need to meet the expectations. Ask them what they need from you in terms of guidance and training and check in with them regularly to find out how they are getting on.
It is this strategy of making the outcome as SMART as possible (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time bound), whilst providing your team members with as much support as they need, that is the essential ingredient of effective delegation. Can you see how this approach will enable you to keep an overview of the job you are delegating whilst not getting lost in the detail? Can you also see how it will make it easier for you to gradually let go of the detail without fearing that it won’t get done to the correct standard?
If your answer is ‘no’ and you still feel some reluctance to delegate part of your job, consider why that might be. Consider that keeping hold of the detail may give you a sense of control over people, information and decisions. If that rings true, challenge yourself to begin to trust your team members more and gradually letting go of control. Could you, for instance, increase your level of trust by improving your team members’ skills, by only delegating smaller jobs, by setting shorter timeframes etc.? Remember that delegation is essential to effective project management, so begin to experiment with how you can make it work for you.
See the situation from your team member’s point of view
The beauty of delegation is that not only does it free you up to attend to the proactive side of project management it also has the potential to develop and empower your team. The best way to delegate is to match a task with a real interest from your team member’s point of view. If one of your team leaders is keen to become a better planner or better at estimating effort, what an excellent opportunity for both of you. You help them align their personal interests and purpose to that of the project. Try to see the situation from your team member’s point of view. What is in it for them? In which ways do they get their own needs and desires fulfilled by taking on one of the tasks you want to delegate?
The final aspect to consider is that different team members will need different types of support from you. If you delegate to someone who is very skilled and competent – but who lacks confidence – chances are that they will need your moral support and praise more than anything. If you micromanage them and focus on how you want them to do the work, you will patronize them. If however you delegate to someone who doesn’t have all the knowledge required, you will initially have to show them how to do the work and only gradually take a step back when you see that they master the task. Set people up for success by assessing what they need from you (moral support or hands on guidance) and then provide them with it.
Now that you have learnt about the essential aspects of delegation, are you ready to give it a go? Not only will it allow you to provide a stretch and growth opportunities to the people you are delegating to (provided that the work you give them is motivating). It will also free you up to be more proactive and provide leadership to your project. What are you waiting for?