Archive for the ‘Strategic Thinking’ Category

Managing Managers: Avoid Becoming a Victim of Upward Delegation

A common work-happiness killer that lurks amongst senior managers is “I work very hard to meet targets, my juniors do not.  I do their work. I end up spending long hours, I am frustrated.”

This problem is everywhere.  The specific solutions would depend on the exact nature of the industry, organisation, culture, and project situation.  There are, however, some common traps that managers of managers should be aware of and avoid.

Before we proceed, I must reiterate the idea that a good manager must be a good person at heart.  You must have genuine concern for your juniors and their well-being.  Nothing makes me happier than to see juniors blossom under my watch.  I am sure that is the case for you too.  But don’t be naïve.

Trap 1:  Junior says “I don’t have the resources”

In many cases this may be a true assessment of the situation.  In other cases your junior may mean different things:

  1. I want more people under me: I like more people under my control
  2. I don’t want to have to request others to help me.  It’s too much for my ego.
  3. I haven’t assessed the project well.

How to respond: Ask for a detailed assessment of the need, with data.  Question whether your report has looked at available resources within the organisation which, while not directly being under his control, can be borrowed for the job.

When he says “I don’t know how this will work” you can respond with something nice that implies “It’s your job to make it work. Are you up to it?”

If you are pretty sure that he does not need more resources, you could use a more direct approach that wastes less of your time. You can say something to the effect of “I don’t agree with you.  Put your head to it and go solve things.”

If this is his way of breaking bad news about a project, it would be best to tell him what you think of the project status.  “I think you have taken this project into a crisis.  I want you to pull up your socks and sort things out.  I am not sure putting more resources will help.  Figure out all different ways of getting it back on track.”  Put it across nicely.

Trap 2:  “How should I do this?”

Don’t jump to answer this question.

Your mind is telling you “I must help my juniors.  I have to be there for them.”

But beware of providing solutions when you think he is capable of finding his own.  It could lead to a decrease of ownership on his part.  It could set you up for a “You told me to do it this way.”

You can be smart and clarify that you have some ideas but ultimately it is up to him to make it work.

Trap 3: “X is not cooperating”

In many organisations, heads of departments have to make things work across department and team boundaries and they spend a lot of time doing so.

This need not be the case.  Actually, the line managers should be doing it.

You can tell your report to go and build relationships and get things done even when resources are not in his direct control.  “Beg if necessary.  You are a manager.”

Trap 4: “I have done my part”

This is another common retort that you hear often.  Your junior can conveniently redefine his role as “doing some activities”.  In fact, he needs to define it as “doing what is needed” to get results.

Make him responsible for the outcomes.  So what, if everything isn’t in his control?

Trap 5: “We have a crisis”

Actually he means,  YOU have a crisis!  Some people create crises, when none exists, to display their troubleshooting abilities and therefore their worth.

Others create the impression of a crisis to keep you anxious.  That keeps you at bay.  At the end of the day, you should be happy that the project has finished.  Never mind that it was somehow finished.

Yet others find it convenient to escalate when things go out of hand.  Straight into the lap of a willing boss!

Tell yourself, “Relax.  Don’t give in to anxiety.  Let me take a hard look and see what has happened.”  This allows you to make a less emotional and more realistic assessment of the situation.  Get involved only if you need to.

See if you can explore other options like getting another manager to help.  By the way, proud managers usually hate it when other managers are asked to help, as they see this as a reduction of their power and esteem.

Trap 6: “I just want to keep you posted”

Some managers will cc everything to their bosses.  The idea is, when things go bad, he can say “But I kept you informed.”  You could thwart such tactics with a polite “I am happy that you keep me posted.  I would prefer a regular project summary that really shows the current status, rather than a cc of every decision you make.  You own the project and all the decisions there.  Don’t expect me to be on the watch for your errors.”

Trap 7:  Junior barges in for a big decision when you are busy or vulnerable

Clever juniors will carefully pick a time to talk with you and get your go-ahead on big decisions.  Either when you are very busy or most vulnerable, such as, just before the monthly review!

If you can help it, ask him to come later.  If he has finessed you, tell him directly “Don’t ever do this to me again.”

I had a junior who was adept at this.  He forced me to adapt and survive!

Building a Culture of Ownership

Last year I witnessed a leadership development program for top managers at a well known textile brand.  At the end of the program they were all chanting “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” That line bears repeating.

Encourage your juniors to take charge of outcomes.  Praise them openly for taking charge and delivering.  Don’t rush to pin blame when they fail, as long as they were really earnest in their effort.

Make them understand that they will not have perfect conditions, far from it. They will have to seek help from others not under them.  They will have to take risks.  They will have to suffer from conditions that are outside of their control. That is the nature of things in business.

Your own beliefs about being a “good manager” may come in the way.  Tell yourself “This is the only way my juniors will grow.  I owe it to them.”

Teach Strategic Thinking

Teach your reports to think strategically; to think of the big picture.  This topic deserves a separate post. So I won’t write much here.

The Shadow Side

This post is not meant to be a lesson in “non-stick” management.  Take this in the right spirit.  It’s not meant to be a Dilbertian view of management.  Indeed, you cannot promote an ownership culture without leading from the front.   I only urge you to be watchful for upward delegation.  And keep your wits about you.


Delegation: Allow Mistakes – What Readers Say

The post “Delegation: Allow People To Make Mistakes” has drawn some interesting comments.  We thought it would useful to put these together and see what emerges.

Two comments, from Ramesh Krishnan and Dr Madhu Oswal, tell us that delegation should not be at the cost of quality of the work.  Delegation does not mean giving up.

Ramesh Krishnan

Agree on the ‘art’ of delegation and the important pieces to keep in mind while getting your team to get to do the tasks that you want them to start doing. I dont agree with your view point that it would help bring down your quality parameters just because your team could not reach there or are not looking equipped to do that. You have mixed up 2 messages here, I think. One is why and how should one delegate and the other is to reconcile and be happy.

Dr Madhu Oswal

I prefer to differ.

Delegation is not simply “giving up” a task to others because you have got tired or bored. More so if you believe its an important task. It is an active process of handing over a “defined ” work to a rightly selected person in a phase manner that involves active training, briefing, checking understanding, supporting when asked for and lastly still controlling in a sensitive way. I would like to know if you have delegated in this way and then allowed that person to make mistakes”?

On the other hand, here is what Manisha Gutman has to say….

The problem with ‘perfectionism’ is that it focuses so much on the task that the person doing the task is forgotten. If the growth of the individual is as much part of the task at hand then one need not compromise on quality. One needs to inspire the individual to work towards getting better, and experience the joy of doing things well. I agree with Bhushan that this may not be first priority but it also cannot be knocked off the list of expectations entirely. Successful delegation recognises the strengths of each individual but also helps them understand and overcome their weaknesses. In this way, the work gets better and the individual grows too. Everyone may not want to ‘grow’ however….

Her points focus more on the aspect of personal growth.  It can be seen as a process for growth of the individuals concerned, while being mindful of the individual’s strengths and weaknesses.  It also acknowledges that growth cannot be forced against a person’s wish.

A very interesting point made here by Ajay Kapoor: the biggest hurdle is from within ourselves. Our fear of impact on others’ perception  (“Log kya sochenge”) may make us risk averse.  A careful cost benefit analysis may reveal where it is ok to take such risks.

Ajay Kapoor

The concept of delegation is brilliantly described by Bhushan. However, in my view, letting certain mistakes go past is one side of the story. We , most of the times, get bogged down by the sense of how will others look at this and what will they think about me and my organisation. So, precisely, it is a cost benefit abalysis that we need to do before we comploetely delegate and not bother too much about perfection. Perfection at what cost? Who is perfect any way?

Post Script

I am going to go out on a limb here and say “Even when we fully know that our junior is going to make a serious mistake, it may still make sense to delegate. “  I have tried it.

What do you think?

Delegation: Let People Make Mistakes

We continue our discussion on delegation with understanding the first hurdle to delegation.

One of the first steps to delegation is to let people try to do the tasks you were doing.  It does not help to look over their shoulders every time.  Most of you have already been through this phase.

The next step is to allow for the fact that people will make mistakes and correct it every time.  Sometimes, your juniors just don’t seem to “get it”.  I have seen this cause anxiety, anger and therefore a lot of misery.  This is especially the case for perfectionists.

Here are some points to consider in such situations:

  1. Are they delivering on the outcomes. Then it may be ok to allow some mistakes
  2. Are they making mistakes that really hurt the work? Prioritize the tasks involved in terms of impact.  Consider whether you can tolerate those mistakes
  3. Understand that every person is different.  Your junior may be better than you at different things.  Examine whether you are only looking at those aspects where you are good.

Here is an example from my experience at the NGO where I volunteer.  I was particularly keen that every proposal, letter or document that goes out must be perfect.  Correct English, well formatted and presented.  My argument was that it does matter.  “These are the things that create an impression about us with others.  And impressions do matter.”

I ended up more or less writing everything.  I would completely edit others’ work, much to their chagrin.

After a while, I got tired of this and was therefore forced to think of a solution.

I asked myself this question “Why is it not ok that there are few mistakes our outputs.  Does it matter always?  Why this obsession with correct English? Am I not presenting a face to the external world that is not really true?  As an organisation, we may not be great at English language.  But our folks can write extremely in Marathi and Hindi.  At my business, whenever we received English documents from say Japanese people, we are quite tolerant of their mistakes.  So why not with our own?”

So, here is how I reframed my thinking about it:

  1. Our work in HIV was our core.  We need to be the best there.  Communication in English need not be our strength.  Unless we are writing to funding agencies 🙂
  2. We can tolerate those mistakes in most cases.
  3. Our folks are better at other things than I.  Let me not get in the way. Let me not stifle their creativity.

This line of thinking helped me deal with my irritation and anxiety.  Everybody was happier!

Most perfectionists do not understand that they have a problem.   Find out if you are one.  Examine yourself closely.  Ask others for feedback.  Take corrective action by reframing your assumptions.

Delegate Successfully

Delegation is imperative, if you want to grow and be successful.

For some however, delegation can be painful.  Others have not delegated because they don’t know what else to do with their time.  They just continue to do what they do.  Yet others are not even aware that they are not delegating well.

Lack of delegation shows up as various symptoms… lack of time, a feeling of not getting enough from your juniors, a sense of stagnation…

Why Delegate

  1. For you to be able to do other things and grow
  2. to let your juniors grow
  3. Grow your business, do more as an organisation

Why Does Delegation Not Happen

Some possibilities…

  1. It can be irritating to teach others to do the tasks you are good at.  You may find it easier to do it yourself
  2. You fear that your juniors will make mistakes and that will have an impact on you, your business
  3. You have a belief that things must be done the “right” way i.e. your way. Or else…disaster! (perfectionist)
  4. You underestimate your juniors’ current abilities or their ability to grow to the challenge
  5. You are scared that if your juniors create a mess then you will end up doing a lot of troubleshooting. Something that you hate.
  6. You are scared of receiving criticism from customers, seniors for the situation. Some people more than others don’t receive criticism well.
  7. You are really good at your current job.  Your juniors cannot do it as well.  But you harbor the false belief that it needs to be done that well
  8. You derive a sense of security in continuing to do what you do
  9. You are scared of becoming disconnected from the day-to-day
  10. You have a fear of becoming obsolete or redundant
  11. You think that fundamentally your worth is based on what you are doing today and the skills you have today
  12. You don’t know how else to occupy yourself
  13. You lack the planning skills
  14. You lack the discipline required
  15. You don’t even realize what is happening
  16. There is not enough pressure or work load on you that forces you to delegate.

What Can Be Done

A quick check with your boss and with your reports can tell you whether you are delegating well and enough.  Look at 360° feedback.

If you find out that you are not delegating well, think about the reasons why this may be happening.  Use the list above for pointers.

Think through WHY you need to delegate. The benefits to the organisation, to you and to your juniors.  Does it really make sense?

Imagine what else you could be doing, how life would be, once you have successfully delegated.  Does that alternative look good enough?

What is the biggest attraction to delegate?  Create the drive within you to delegate, with clear awareness of where you want it to lead you.

In Order To Delegate Well

Setup clear goals for your department or business

Give your reports a clear idea of the outcome that they are responsible for, individually and jointly

Give them the space to operate. Don’t breathe down their neck.

Find others things to do. Otherwise you may find yourself getting pulled back in

Communicate well with the team and with each member

Be available, but only as much as required

Teach, coach, mentor your juniors

Accept that there may be failures on the part your juniors when you delegate

Think twice before you jump in to troubleshoot

Have the discipline to conduct strong, regular reviews

Create informal relationships with your juniors’ juniors to get the pulse of the “shopfloor”

Don’t let your reports create empires from where no information flows out.  Recognise such cases and break them up ruthlessly

Don’t Wait For Ideal Conditions

You don’t have to wait for all the pre-requisites to be in place before you delegate. Sometimes putting your juniors on the firing line, may be good training for them.  Let them manage.

Do It Gradually When Possible

Sometimes a sudden attempt at delegation can make it seem like you have lost interest. Especially if you have not communicated your intention or given your reports clear goals.

Don’t “Delegate” Your Way Out Of Trouble

It is unethical to dump a problem situation on your juniors in the name of delegation.  Delegation works only when your juniors know that you own the situation as much as they do.

Reminds me of a Dilbert cartoon strip.  The new joinee is told “We are putting you in charge of the missing funds!”

How To Focus On Outcomes

This post talks about what is needed to make the transition to Outcome Orientation.

End Results

Constantly remind yourself of what end results are important.  Keep going back to this at least once a week.  Remind yourself of why this is important.  Contemplate. Don’t rush to make a “to-do”.

MindSpace – Not Just Free Time

Create the mind space to contemplate. It is not enough to get free time. It you get an hour between two stressful meetings, it’s not really MindSpace.  Figure out your quiet time and quiet place.  It could be at home, at the park, in your cabin.  Switch off your cell and email.  Use the techniques you know to calm your mind.  Or, learn one such technique and make it work for you.

My favorite time is the bus ride from Pune to Mumbai and back.

If you find it very difficult to create MindSpace, chances are you are not delegating enough.  You may have to work on delegation as a pre-requisite.

Think Strategic

Visualise the outcome desired.  Think of what is all needed to create the desired outcome, without regard to boundaries of ownership or control.  Doesn’t matter who is supposed to do what and who has the authority.

Spend more attention on those dependencies that you know the least about.  Figure out what it takes to learn about them.  This will often require you to get out of the comfort space of your office, department, friends and colleagues.

This may require you to do one or more of several things such as: (what is your area of discomfort?)

Gather data, intelligence from external sources. Often such intelligence does not come in neat packages. Learn to deal with incomplete, hazy data. Sometimes clear intuitive insight can be found even in such situations.
Seek to create consensus within the organisation. Be prepared to modify your proposition just to achieve consensus Change the very definition of the offering (if it is, say, about starting up a new idea) based on the difficulties
Deal with recalcitrant employees.  Even get them into your team Make some tough compromises on budget
Somehow get to make a presentation to your CEO, who does not know you. Be prepared to receive criticism.
Disclose your idea to people you don’t trust; co-opt people you don’t like Talk to competitors.  May be find ways to co-operate with them
Get visible in your industry, your organization. May be write about your idea Make public appearances. Work the media. Often required to generate traction for an idea
Accept that failure is a possibility.  In spite of that not hedge and champion the idea openly. Swallow your pride and request juniors to teach you things you don’t know.

Are Emotions Blocking You?

Ask yourself these questions: Have you ruled out some solutions because of old hurts, enemities, distrust? Are any emotions getting in the way?

Leave the baggage behind.  Let them not prevent you from engaging with those whose support and help you need.

Also understand that it is OK to be uncomfortable with some things.  It’s natural.  Figure those that are important for the given outcome and work on those.

Test/ Validate Your Strategy

We tend to start action on those things we know and can control.  Before you spend too much money and time, go out and explore those things that you don’t know.

Continuous Process

This is a process, not a one time event.  Be prepared to revisit your assumptions every time you get back to strategic thinking.

Don’t Get Anxious

Thinking about outcomes makes some people anxious.  In such cases, this exercise can increase anticipatory anxiety.  Either get over the anxiety or drop this technique.  The anxiety may not be worth it.

Outcome Orientation – Some Examples

Here are some examples where Outcome-Orientation, can make a fundamental difference at various levels.

Ordering Vegetables Online

Jayesh, a software professional, wants to setup an online website for ordering fresh vegetables. The idea is to have vegetables at your door step when you come home for dinner.  The service targets working couples who would like to save time and yet have fresh vegetables daily.

Jayesh loved focusing on the website, user experience and comparison with competitor websites.

A quick analysis of the externalities and unknowns gave new insight.

Jayesh decided instead, that he would start with going and talking to potential customers and test the idea.  Next, he would get 20 pilot customers.  Get them to send simple emails with their requests. Then go, buy at the Mandi. Sit in the van and deliver to each home.  This would teach him a lot more than working on the website.

Software or Service – What Is My Business?

A young engineer started up GyanApps. A product for school administration, GyanApps offers the software on rental with no upfront investment required. The business faced a “last mile” problem.  Schools did not have staff to ensure timely data entry.  Setting up the initial student database was an onerous task.  “Go-live” was delayed at several schools. Taking a “whatever it takes” approach, GyanApps redefined itself as a software-cum-services provider.  It now offers data entry services, a helpdesk and other allied services that make it much easier to adopt and use the product.

It’s With HR

One of my colleagues at our software product business had to hire key technical talent to kick off a make-or-break initiative.  The industry was booming and it was extremely tough to bag good people.  My partner went from Pune to Mumbai and waited at a suburban station. A potential hire would get off here on his way back home.  He was hoping to meet this guy and convince him to join us! Talk about taking initiative.  This is in sharp contrast to what I often hear from managers “It’s with HR.”

Do I Really OWN this project?

Working at an NGO, Pradyut came up with a new idea.  He convinced the Trust and and got permission to try it out. The idea soon ran into technical hurdles.  With a lot of perseverance Pradyut got past them and was close to start of the pilot. At that time one of the Trustees asked why he did not have a two year cost plan in place before they went any further.  At the end of his patience already, Pradyut was hurt to the quick.  “I did my part.  I don’t want to have to answer to these people who only sit in judgment.” He sulked and gave up.  A “come-what-may” attitude might have given him the thick skin necessary!

Happiness Vs Outcome-Orientation

Is there a conflict between these two?

This interesting question has been raised by a close friend in response to the series of posts that talk about the benefits of being Outcome-Oriented

I don’t think so.

Happiness is not the absence of troubles.  It is the attitude we possess towards such situations.  So, if the CEO does not meet me in spite of several requests, I don’t fret and fume about it.  I don’t curse my luck or my abilities.  I simply accept that such failures are to be expected and rework the way forward.

A laser like focus on Outcomes does lead to discomfort.  But we have the choice to treat such discomfort as part of life, rather an opportunity to grow.

Easier said than done, however!

We are habituated to losing happiness when things don’t go our way.  We try very hard to look for external reasons for our failures and generate negative emotions.  Or worse, we whip ourselves for it – even more harmful.

For me, spirituality and meditation has been the way.  It helped me get over my failures.  It has helped me bring the right attitude to my shortcomings and be comfortable with my imperfections.

These days, I first choose the area of discomfort I want to tackle and then choose the appropriate project.

I think each individual has to find the way for himself.  This is a deeply personal process of search and growth.

It would be interesting to hear from you on what you tried and what has worked for you.