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People Management

5 Effective Delegation Techniques for Engineering Managers

March 16, 2022
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8 mins

Delegating is hard, but get it right and it’s like a super power. These five tips will help every engineering manager delegate more effectively.

Lawrence Barker
Delegating is hard, but get it right and it’s like a super power. These five tips will help every engineering manager delegate more effectively.

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New engineering managers have the exciting yet tough shift from being a deliverable-driven contributor to a supportive high-level manager. But it's not an easy transition.

If you’re like many engineering managers, your calendar is jam-packed. You’re constantly jumping from meeting to meeting. You’re expected to be a technical expert, plus manage your team, recruit new hires, and handle a boatload of other tasks.

Sometimes it can feel like running on a treadmill. You’re hustling hard all day long, but at the end of a day or week, you don’t feel like you’ve made any progress. 

Delegation can free you from that treadmill. It can help create space in your calendar so you can accomplish your highest priority tasks. Done right, engineering delegation can also level up your entire team over time. 

Figure out what to delegate

All projects aren’t created equal. Once you’ve committed to making delegation a consistent priority, you need to figure out what projects and tasks you should delegate. 

There are a lot of different questions you can ask to help you decide what to delegate. Before we look at a few of those, it’s important to recognize that what you delegate (or don’t delegate) sends a message to your team.

If you only delegate low-value projects and tedious tasks, you’re telling your team that those are the only things you trust them with. Over time, they might start thinking that they're incapable of handling mission-critical projects. They may even start to resent the tasks you delegate to them because they’ll feel like you’re simply offloading things you don’t want to be bothered with. 

On the other hand, if you strategically delegate high-value and important work to your team — with the appropriate support — the message you’re sending is that you trust and believe in them. You’re signaling that you want them to grow and that you need their help to accomplish your objectives. This kind of delegation can go a long way towards creating a psychologically safe workplace.

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Take the Pledge

To decide which projects and tasks you should delegate, start by asking yourself these three questions:

  1. What can only you do? There are items on your to-do list that only you should handle. This probably includes things like 1:1 meetings and performance reviews. It may also include project-specific items or meetings you must attend. 

  1. Who else could do this? Take each item that doesn’t require your direct involvement and brainstorm who else on your team might be capable of completing it. If you have a strong team, you might have several people who can handle a given task. At times you may want to play to a team member’s existing strengths; at other times you might want to delegate to help drive growth in a specific area. 

  1. Who would this be a good growth opportunity for? Delegating a task doesn’t mean you’ll be completely hands-off. On the contrary, delegation with support is a great way to stretch your team members and foster growth. If you’ve been having career growth and development conversations, then you should be able to find ways to delegate projects that align with individual team members’ long-term goals. 

If you’d like an even more robust approach to figuring out what to delegate, consider using the Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix is an approach to prioritization that considers two factors: urgency and importance.  Simply categorize each item on your to-do list based on whether it is urgent and/or important. You’ll end up with four groups of items, and you can then delegate the appropriate items. 

Tips to help engineering managers delegate well

Figuring out what to delegate is the first step. Then you’ve got to commit to doing the hard (and sometimes scary) work of giving away your legos by delegating key projects and tasks. 

So how can you make sure that your approach to delegating will pay off? Implementing five key tactics will help you delegate successfully:

  1. Delegate outcomes, not tasks.
  2. Create clear documentation and expectations.
  3. Agree upon a cadence and channel for updates and feedback.
  4. Be patient.
  5. Don’t punish failure.

Delegate outcomes, not tasks

Delegation involves relinquishing control without relinquishing responsibility. That may seem like a contradiction at first glance, but it’s not. 

Let’s try a cowboy analogy: When you delegate, you’re loosening up the reins — or giving them to someone else completely — but you’re still responsible to make sure you get to your intended destination. 

As an engineering manager, you may ask someone else to take lead on a project, but you’re still accountable for the results. You may step back personally and give someone else control, but you’re still responsible to make sure the code gets written and shipped on time. 

Here’s the key takeaway: there isn’t always just one route to a destination. Whether we’re talking about riding horses or building a new feature, there’s often more than one way to accomplish a goal. 

That’s why you should delegate the outcome, not the tasks. One of the benefits of delegation is empowering your team, right? 

If you give a team member a list of specific instructions and ask them to follow the steps exactly as you specified, that’s not very empowering. It can feel like micromanaging, and no one likes that. Instead, help your team member understand the outcome you’re looking for. Give them all the context and support they need, but also give them the ownership to figure out what the ideal solution looks like. 

Create clear documentation and expectations

Clear documentation and expectations keep everyone on the same page. Doing the work to set these expectations and create documentation upfront will help your team avoid missteps and prevent wasted time and effort.

Creating documentation might feel like it conflicts with the prior tip in this article (delegating outcomes, not tasks). As with many things in life, there’s a caveat to that last tip: you need to consider the experience level of the person you’re delegating to.

  • If you’re delegating to someone with experience in the area, expectations matter most. You need to make sure they’re clear on what you’re asking them to do and any other expectations you have. However, since they’re already experienced, they probably don’t need detailed documentation on every little step. 

  • If you’re delegating to someone who is relatively junior in the area, some kind of documentation or step-by-step process may be necessary. You don’t want to throw them in the deep end without a life raft. Rather than feeling like micromanaging, clear documentation can give them the insight and confidence they need to move forward.

Agree upon a cadence and channel for updates and feedback

Take some time at the beginning of a project to agree upon when and how you’ll share feedback and updates. 

There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to do this. You’ll need to consider how experienced the team member is and how critical the project is. If you’re delegating an essential project or it’s a relatively junior team member, then it’s probably a good idea to check in more frequently.

As an engineering manager, this helps you stay in the loop and avoids unwanted surprises. If your team is using software like Jira or Basecamp, getting updates may be as simple as checking a ticket or project regularly. 

Agreeing upon a feedback loop helps your direct reports, too. Having regular checkpoints where you provide feedback ensures that if they accidentally head in the wrong direction, you’ll be able to help them course-correct before they’ve wasted too much time or energy. 

Be patient

One of the most frustrating parts about delegating as a manager is that there are often times when you’d be able to complete a task faster or better if you just did it yourself.

In this sense, delegation is like parenting. You can probably make a sandwich in two minutes, but it might take ten minutes for your four-year-old to do the same job. And if you’re a parent, you know that it can be an excruciating, messy process. 

But here’s the thing: If you don’t let them do the task themselves, they’ll never learn how to do it well. 

So while delegation might mean it takes a little longer or isn’t as smooth of a process, keep the long-term goal in mind. By being patient and sticking with delegating for the long-haul, you’ll have a stronger and more experienced engineering team a year from now. 

Don’t punish failure

When you approach delegating with a growth mindset, it’s important to remember that you’ll encounter some bumps in the road. When your team misses a deadline or accidentally ships a bug into production, you have a choice on how you respond.

If you react negatively to the failure, you’ll squash future growth. Engineers won’t want to take risks or assume new responsibilities, because they know they’ll pay for any mistakes they make. Your engineering team will become uncomfortable with aggressive goals and stretching beyond their comfort zone.

There’s a better way. 

By responding positively to failure — not encouraging it, but framing it as a learning opportunity — you can foster a growth mindset in your team. 

A growth mindset is a belief that people have the ability to develop their abilities, talents, and capabilities through consistent effort over time. Software engineering changes quickly. There’s always a new language or framework to learn. Without a growth mindset, your team will be in trouble.

So when someone falls short or a project gets finished a week late, don’t penalize the individuals responsible. See it as a learning opportunity. Hold a postmortem. Work together with your team to understand where things went wrong, then create a plan to do better next time.

And by all means, don’t stop delegating!

Meet the Author

Lawrence Barker

Lawrence uses his decade of customer experience leadership to create content for B2B SaaS companies that love their customers. He writes on a broad range of topics, all with the aim of helping human-centered companies attract the right customers and empower them to be successful.

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