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The art of reverse delegation

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Time for another re-run. This time, it’s in response to some correspondence I received from a mid-twenties employee who got into trouble for failing an assignment.

His take on the subject: His manager did a bad job of delegating. The result — he was in over his head and didn’t get the help he needed.

The real problem: His manager did a bad job of delegating and my correspondent did a bad job of “reverse delegation.” Read on.


Business bookshelves are filled with techniques for managing and leading better. Help for employees whose bosses don’t read this advice … and would blow it off as unimportant if they did … is harder to find.

There are, for example, lots of sources of information on how to delegate well. As delegation is the responsibility that defines management, you’d expect every manager in the world to be pretty good at it. You’d expect wrong.

How it’s supposed to happen: Your manager is clear about the assignment, and its deliverables. Your deadline and time budget come from a plan you develop and your manager reviews.

And, you meet every week to discuss progress, any issues that arise, and any help you might need.

How it often does happen: A manager sends his/her victim a one-to-two sentence email.

That’s it. No clarity, no approved plan, no support. It’s assign-and-ignore delegation. Oh, and these managers are the ones who chew out employees whose results miss the undefined deadline, target, or both.

So imagine your manager tells you, via email, to “Write a BYOD policy for us.”

Close your eyes and imagine a sandy beach. No, not your happy place. Guadalcanal. As pleasant as the expanse of sand and ocean looks, it has lots and lots of landmines.

To avoid them, take charge. Just because your manager doesn’t know how to delegate, it doesn’t mean you don’t know how to get delegated to.

Step 1: Force a meeting. Use your company’s calendar system to schedule a half-hour meeting. No more. A half hour is hard to turn down.

You actually reserve two half-hour time slots, by the way — the second one a week after the first. We’ll get to why in a minute.

(If your manager turns down your meeting request, you’ll have to handle what follows by email. Document your understandings, adding the phrase, “Unless I hear otherwise from you by <date>, I’ll operate under this understanding:” followed by your assumptions. Yes, it’s a CYK (cover your keister) play. Sometimes that’s what you have to do.

Most managers, though, will meet at least once if you force the issue and don’t ask for too much time. Make the most of it.

Step 2: Run the meeting. Minor point: Don’t bring a printed agenda. A bad delegator will probably interpret one as a sure sign you’re a plodding bureaucrat. Plan the meeting, sure. But don’t print the plan.

Start by clarifying scope. In our BYOD example, that mostly means listing the technologies it’s to include and exclude: Smartphones? Yes. Tablets? Yes. Laptops? No — no employee laptops. How about software and apps? Yes. Services like web conferencing? Uh … I guess. Consumer cloud-based storage and information sharing? How’s that again? Dropbox and Skydrive. Oh. What do you think?

Turning a blank sheet of paper into a multiple-choice and true/false test makes defining the assignment clearly much easier, and it enhances your image as someone who can bring clarity out of chaos.

You have one more scope topic: Your work product. Here, use the pro-active scope creep ploy.

To use the ploy, try adding a second deliverable to the obvious one (the written policy).

You might, for example, ask if you’re also supposed to prepare a presentation to explaining the policy. Whether your boss says yes or no, you’ve successfully fixed the list of work products, preventing your boss adding another one the day before the deadline.

Step 3: Stall

By now, your half hour should be over. You want it to be over. That lets you propose taking a week to put a plan together, to be reviewed in that second half-hour meeting you had the foresight to schedule.

Step 4: Get approval for your plan. In the second meeting, sketch out your approach, your time budget, and the due date you can commit to. And, recommend ways for dealing with the other work that won’t get done because you can’t just add this assignment to your already heavy workload and do a decent job.

And, ask for ten minutes each week to review your progress and make any course corrections that turn out to be necessary. Weekly review meetings make the difference between an assignment tossed over a cubicle wall and actual, responsible delegation.

Congratulations. Some employees with unskilled managers are victims. Not you. Even better, you’ve done what every great employee learns to do: You’ve made your boss a better manager.

Comments (10)

  • Uh, in your last sentence didn’t you mean to say “yearns” instead of “learns”? I doubt if anyone will ever invent a spelling/grammar checker that will catch that error.

  • Bob, you do realize that you are training consultants through this approach, right?

    Most of the time we have to do a similar process. The client often spends your time with him bemoaning bosses, staff, other consultants, HR, the weather, football or . . . and then rushes off to another meeting saying to you, the consultant, “you take it from here and give me some feedback in a week.”

    So the process then is writing out 1) what you are going to do, 2) why you are going to do it (quoting from the short discussion just completed), how much it will cost (the fee, also quoting the client’s agreement to this fee) and when you will be done. (another client quote goes here).

    Sometimes the “quotes” have to be created from words used for other purposes, but hey, recycling is good.

    John Blair

  • Brilliant article. I’ve done this approach a lot, but not with actual forethought; it was more accidentally at places I _like_ talking to the boss so I feel like putting out some good work, help him out you know because he’s getting the same vague mismanagement from his bosses.

    The inverse process of letting everything fall thru the cracks also works (Wally as opposed to Dilbert) but that’s when CYK is absolutely critical.

    Pro-active scope creep ploy. Definitely a necessary weapon in the consultant’s or concerned employee’s arsenal of reverse management tricks.

  • Do yo remember the “management” style called the one minute manager? There was a small paper bound book that followed those seminars called the “:59 second employee”. Your advise is a sequel to the book. Good advice.

  • Excellent! I am not a manager, I’m in the trenches (where I like it). I read your articles because it helps me understand what managers are supposed to do (and because even geeks in the trenches have to manage a little bit).
    Sometimes though, it is just so discouraging that I am tempted to stop reading them, since I’ve only had one manager in my career that actually managed.
    This kind of thing keeps me hooked.

    • FYI When I clicked on the link “Fresh Links Sundae from David Lowe of Actionable ITSM | Actionable ITSM” Firefox would not let me through because it said your location is not secure. Thought you should know if you don’t already.

      • Thanks. I suspect the problem is that I use iframes. Whatever, under the covers this is a simple WordPress blog, which is neither more nor less secure than any other WordPress blog.

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