Delegation Done Wrong
I have been misunderstanding “delegation” for most of my career.
Most leaders in my industry have some sense of the value of delegation. Large game projects call for mountains of work; it takes a big team to address the hundreds of tasks that need to be completed. You can’t do all the work yourself so you parcel out tasks. Easy.
We also understand that to a certain extent, we need to parcel out decision-making. If every creative or design decision has to flow through me, I will quickly become a bottleneck. Most teams have layers of decision-makers to address this inefficiency. Straightforward.
Successful delegation isn’t just about distributing work and decision-making authority, though. To really delegate successfully, I need to create a team culture in which people can make decisions and lay out next steps with the same confidence and sense of ownership that I have.
In successful teams, people feel responsible for delivering results.
Author’s note: I find that I’m really writing for directors, this week, and since my focus is in AAA games, your mileage may vary applying what I’m saying to other contexts.
The Hard Limit Is Exhaustion
For the first time in my professional life, this year I hit the limits of my capacity to solve problems through personal effort. I have always been able to simply spend more time, and lock myself away to deliver detailed designs on specific hot topics whenever I perceived the team was blocked… But as I work with larger and larger teams: I realize that my strategy of simply doing-more-work is not sustainable.
The idea that my energy has limits was not easy for me to accept. Hard work on difficult problems is part of my self-image. But, it was clear I needed to grow new skills.
Going forward, I’m focused on using delegation more effectively, and getting my teams more invested in running with the ball without my intervention.
Get Your Team In The Fight
“Getting my teams more invested” in this case means that I need them to feel committed to deliver. It’s worth saying at this point that my team are a bunch of absolute badasses, and they have been delivering great work all year. The problem is me: I have been doing a poor job of delegation.
Typically I have been involving myself in problem solving at nearly every level, and creating a pattern of work in which people often anticipate that I will take decisions and dictate next steps. In doing so, I’m not really successfully delegating responsibility for getting things done.
It’s not easy to switch from telling your team how they’re going to hit goals, to asking your teams how they’re going to hit goals... but it’s necessary if you want them to realize that success or failure is in their hands. Senior team members and intermediate leads need to feel like it’s up to them to make it happen.
Celebrate Your Victories
Everybody knows this, which is why people forget: celebrate every single time your team delivers successfully. Applaud individual effort and reward people who represent the culture you want.
Nothing is more valuable to your work as a team than to consistently praise people who do good work. If you’re delegating successfully, then people will “buy in” and begin to move with a purpose…. motivation and positive feedback are enormously important to ensure that teammates have the confidence to take responsibility.
Celebrate the people who commit to their goals, and praise their successes. Don’t forget anyone.
Don’t Mistake Missing Details For Problems
If you’re like me, it’s very easy to get excited by the details of design. Making games is enormously fun, and it’s hard to separate “this is a good design that meets our needs” from “this is exactly how I would do it myself”. Sometimes I can’t acknowledge the former because it is not the latter.
I need to be comfortable enough delegating decisions that the team can present a general approach or working strategy without me freaking out that the plan is not one hundred percent clear (i.e., already decided).
If I constantly intervene to clarify details or next steps, I am undermining the message of my delegation. Few people will pick up the ball and run with it if they are expecting me to spawn out of nowhere and solve micro problems.
For my delegation to be effective, people need to feel like it’s up to them to make the play.
Rules of Situational Leadership Still Apply
Delegating ownership doesn’t mean never helping out, of course. Like all teams, devs will still need different levels of support on different tasks. So when I say that I’ve been delegating badly and I need to be less involved, I’m not saying “I’m going to give less support to junior designers”.
People will still need support for design tasks that they’re not expert in doing, and I need to support people’s confidence so that they take ownership and are responsible for getting results.
My goal in delegating “better” is to be more successful at making people feel responsible for succeeding at their objectives… without pretending that I can treat all of my team members the same way.
My strategy moving forward is to place more focus on asking people how they plan to reach objectives, and less on driving the process myself. I have a great team; I need to use their energy more effectively.