Delegating safely and successfully

At Yelp, I've been in a role we call Group Technical Lead (GTL) for a little over a year now. In short, it involves being the technical (aka non-people-manager) leader of a technical space that spans teams. The closest industry standard analog is probably Senior Staff Engineer. I worked in 2017-2018 as the GTL of Yelp's commerce platform -- payments and billing infrastructure that powers food delivery, advertisements, and other paid products. However this year I've just transitioned to serving in the same GTL role for Yelp's ad platform. This is a pretty dramatic shift in teams and results in me owning a very different set of tasks.

One of the obvious changes caused by me leaving Commerce is the work I used to do needs an owner! The one most at the front of my mind is the group's technical roadmap for the next couple years, but there are a number of other responsibilities that were very central to my job description and are left unowned in my absence.

There are strong technical leaders staying in Commerce who I want to grow into my old role(s), but there's a fair concern that they might not be ready to immediately perform the same function. This comes up a lot even when you aren't switching teams. As you regularly acquire new, harder tasks the old work you used to do has to go somewhere. The question is how to delegate work you used to do while setting its new owner up for success.

Delegation a task doesn't imply zero involvement

A normal fear whenever you try to delegate something you used to own is that whoever you give it to might not know how to do it well. This is even more common when (like for me right now) you're delegating a task that wasn't easy for you down to someone who has less experience doing it than you.

A common (but bad!) response to this is to just not delegate your task. This results in you getting overloaded (more work always arrives), the people around you never getting challenging opportunities to grow, and silos of knowledge where expertise doesn't get shared.

I like to hack around this by frequently reminding myself that delegating a task doesn't need to imply having zero involvement! The RACI model encourages thinking of four possible ways to be involved in a project:

  • Responsible: You do the work to complete the task
  • Accountable: You are ultimately answerable for the correct and thorough completion of the deliverable or task
  • Consulted: You are consulted for your expert opinions when needed
  • Informed: You just hear about the task's progress (without blocking any decisions)

Partial delegation via RACI

Thinking about this, you can see that I can hand off Accountability for the Commerce Roadmap while still helping (lightly Responsible), and definitely offering lots of Consulting help. This lets me not lead the effort, but still be around a lot for advice and keep an eye on any worst-case outcomes. My normal transition from full ownership to full delegation looks like this over time:

  1. I start fully Accountable, and probably Responsible too.
  2. I involve my replacement first, making them also co-Responsible for the task. We focus on talking through and pairing up for any work I do in my Accountable capacity.
  3. Next I delegate Accountable, but stay Consulted for sure and possibly Responsible if needed. This is the training wheels period -- I'm still very involved and can spot mistakes, but I'm reducing the choices I make and expecting my replacement to be more self sufficient.
  4. I try to let go of Responsible once I'm sure my day-to-day involvement isn't necessary, but stay Consulted. This is easiest if you slowly reduce your involvement over a period of time.
  5. Consulted often lasts for a while, but I aim to make sure the amount of time I'm spending is reducing over time.
  6. And eventually I can drop Consulted and just trust the delegate to handle it completely. If I long term need to care about the task, I can choose to stay Informed.

Even though using acronyms runs the risk of making me start wearing a suit to work and saying SYNERGY a lot, I really like RACI as a way of helping me remember delegation isn't a big-bang binary choice. If you find it this useful, you might like me talking about it and other things in this talk on surviving overloading at work. It's certainly feeling very relevant to me maintaining sanity during this team transition.

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