Thursday, August 18, 2011

Delegation and Failure

Honestly, I didn't know whether to post this on this site or my "serious"/work site. Technically, it's about work and would be well-situated there. However, this is more a philosophical post than a technical post. Thus, I opted to put it here...

For the last several jobs I've worked at, I've frequently been in the position where I had to push the tasks I was once responsible for onto groups with less exeperience than I have. This is the nature of an engineering role: you figure the stuff out, then you turn it over to others to manage - usually after simplifying and documenting that "stuff", first. Then, you move on to other things and act as a technical resource for those charged with the day-to-day care and feeding of that "stuff".

Invariably, part of the push-down process is figuring out which things are suitable for push-down and to whom. Part of "to whom" is knowing who's available to do the work and their skills set or prescribing the type of person that should be capable of doing the work and allowing the folks in charge of staffing to find people that meet your prescribed skills set. At the end of the day, it's a process that, if executed correctly by all parties involved, allows the "stuff" to be more widely used and kept healthy, and allows the engineer to mostly divorce himself from that "stuff".

The push-down process is one fraught with challenges and fear. While you, as an engineer, can decide what things can and should be pushed down and who it should be able to be pushed down to, there's always the fear that you won't be able to push it down. You have fear that the people you're pushing to won't be up to the challenge. You fear that the people you're pushing to won't do things the way you had envisioned, ultimately resulting in more work for you (first, by having to fix any breakage that results; and, second, having to undo all the stuff that resulted in the breakage or, worse, having found the unanticipated deviance so pathologically and intractably ingrained that you have to leave it in place and work around it). Further, if your a conscientious sort, you always have the worry that you're setting people up to fail.

It's this last that I hear over and over when it comes time for the push-down: "we might be setting them up to fail."

This is a hard one to argue against. Any time you pass a resposibility on to others, you pass on the possibility of failure. It's the nature of the beast. If you're giving anyone the ability to do anything meaningful, you're also giving them the ability to screw important things up. That said, if you've properly described the expected skills set for the task(s) and/or provided good procedural documentation, you've not only given them the ability to fail, you've also ensured that they have the tools to succeed. The only time you're "setting someone up to fail" is if you give them a tasking that they can't reasonably be expected to handle. If the people responsible for staffing ignore your staffing prescriptions, that's not your fault. If the people handling the passed-down responsibilities ignore the procedures you've tested, documented and passed-down, that's not your fault. The best you can do is to act in good faith and be there to clean up the mess when your efforts weren't enough (oh: and document why the failure occurred so that it might not happen again for the same reasons).

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