Monday, December 03, 2012

Upward delegation

I had heard this term a long time back and then forgot about it; in those days my team was small and activity largely technical. I wore professional pride on my sleeve proclaiming that I could solve any technical problem, well almost any problem within the many technology domains that I specialized in. So whenever the team threw a crooked one at me, I would get my hands dirty and triumphantly bring out the solution. Many CIOs would refer to that era as the good old days, in reflection I wonder.

As teams got bigger and the focus shifted towards learning the business ropes across functions, the technology prowess diminished and I started farming the problems to either my team mates who were passionate about technology or vendors who were always happy to help; however partaking in their success still gave me highs. Time pressures ensured that these moments became far and fewer until I realized how easily I was goaded into taking on a challenge to find a solution, faster, cheaper, better !

I became wary of opening conversation lines, “we have a problem …” We ? But you just walked into my cubicle/cabin and we still have not exchanged pleasantries, so where did I fit into the equation ? You have a problem and you want my help in solving it would probably describe the situation aptly. You believe that my superior knowledge or problem solving ability or network of contacts could help resolve the sticky situation in which you find yourself. Such conversations were not always pleasant; my ego however needed the massaging.

And then about a decade back or so it hit me that I was the perfect dummy being subject to upward delegation. My entertaining the protagonists gave them an opportunity with a few words to transfer the responsibility squarely onto my shoulders. With me telling them that I will get back to them, they did not have to work upon it. If deadlines were missed, it was my problem; if the problem was escalated, it was back to my table where the buck lay and I had no way of passing it back to the originator.

Reading through Ken Blanchard’s “One minute manager meets the monkey” had my life run before my eyes. That and learning from another management guru gave me the mantra that finally extracted me out of the self-created abyss. I tried practicing the techniques I had learnt from these wonderful texts and guess what ? They worked very well indeed. They have now become a part of my working style and I guess that will continue to keep monkeys at bay.

It would appear simplistic if I said that the dialogue now starts with “You have a problem … and what do you propose as a solution ? If you are at a dead end, here are the resources that should help you find solutions. Come back within the agreed timeline and we can discuss your recommendations on how to solve the problem”. I am not oversimplifying the issue, this works almost all the time; yes there are exceptions or tricky ones which need a different and more direct approach.

“It does not require two (or more if the issue is brought by a team) of us to solve a problem or get something done. Either you (find a way to) do it or give up the task and let me find someone more qualified to get the work done. I have not had anyone take up the latter offer as yet. They typically do find a way to solve the problem. It is not necessarily incompetence that gets them to this situation, occasionally it is laziness and many times their risk-averse nature (fear of failure or ridicule).

Upward delegation is easy for everyone when their manager/function head lives in professional pride and arrogance. The true CIO leaders would do well to abstain and learn the art of monkey management. Be aware and careful in your retaining the problem with you, lest it consume you and a large portion of your time. Even if it gave you a kick or a high, it would be a very expensive way to solve something trivial for the company.


  1. While the monkey management syndrome is a reality, these situations can be opportunities to mentor people by going down a path of supporting them in their endeavor of getting them to solve their own problems. When people come down and say We, in my opinion by throwing back You, one creates a big wall. As a practising manager I love to teach people how to fish rather than fishing for them.

    I am cognizant of the fact, that some people who are high on power use this tactic to put their monkey on someone elses shoulder. One has to firmly deal with them, they way you mention in your post. There are a lot of people in the middle management who actually come forward and reach out when they are lost. This happens because there is a cordial space between them and you that gives them the confidence to approach you. This space will be lost forever, if there is a harsh rebuttal. I am not saying that you are suggesting harsh rebuttal, just making a point that with some people mentoring approach is better than harsh rebuttals.

  2. In my opinion if a CIO has been a technologist, it is very likely that the staff will seek his/her guidance to resolve issues/ conflicts. It is but natural for a subordinate who looks at its superior with solutions addressing immediate concerns. A subordinate will take pride in reporting to such a person and be motivated to excel.

    Even if a task/assignment has been delegated, the ownership of ensuring execution resides with the senior. If a CIO just directs and doesn't take ownership of the situation in crisis only offering a handful of contacts (vendors etc) who could possibly help, one would be just seen as a coordinator. In such instances, any individual other than a technologist can take over as a CIO.

    In the process of being business oriented, CIO is loosing control of the environment s/he is supposed to nurture and grow.

  3. In the last two decades, IT has transformed from a support function to business critical function and now revenues are dependent on the IT systems (sectors like BFSI, Telecom, Entertainment to name a few). Hence the CIO has become a virtual CEO. And the attitude of the IT team has also changed from support mentality to business mentality, they understand the impact of any problem/issue and the monetary risk it has to the company.

    There are two kinds of people:
    1. guys who tend to push every trivial issue to the CIO saying "We have a problem" without doing any homework or trying to resolve the issue. Interestingly, they only resolve the issue later posing as good crisis managers.
    2. guys who put their best effort including taking advice from other internal teams and vendors and still if they say "We have a problem", it means its a real crisis and needs external parties intervention.

    Counselling the first category and mentoring the second category is required as a CIO.

    Note: It is also observed that the team behaves according to the environment and culture of the organization and their risk taking capability is directly proportional to it.