Delegate or drown! That might sound a tad alarmist, but as technology develops apace and working life within organisations becomes increasingly complex, CIOs haven't a hope of doing everything themselves in navigating what are potentially choppy waters. So here at CIO UK, we thought we would canvass the opinions of some CIOs and specialists in this field to explore the Dos and Don'ts of delegating.
But why some CIOs are reluctant to delegate in the first place? According to Jon Hogg, chief platform officer (CIO and CTO) of software and computer services company blur, we all have a control-freak inside us and the CIO of course needs to be sure that work is done properly. "I'm lucky because I came to technology via marketing so I haven't worked my way up in IT, so it is easy for me to acknowledge expertise in others and trust them to do it," he says. "But I can see how any C-level person would struggle with the letting go and delegating if they have always worked in that field."
In a role encompassing all aspects of tech development in his company, Hogg is quick to spot the warning signs that negate delegation in himself. "I've learnt from experience that the minute I start to think: 'it's quicker to handle it myself' I should stop and dedicate time to training those around me. It always pays off and my role in strategic decision-making has grown as a result."
Like most things, it is fear that holds people back from delegation, offers Dr Peter Chadha, founder of business and technology consultancy DrPete: "It's fear that the job will not be done properly, fear that there will be painful mistakes, fear that you may lose your job because of somebody else's incompetence. And sometimes even a fear that if the delegatee turns out to be brilliant they may threaten your job. This is especially true because of the special relationships a CIO will hold with the most senior people in the business."
So what are the strategies CIOs should be employing to enable them to delegate more efficiently? The vital starting point for a CIO is to develop a leadership mindset and challenge their own added value, says Phil Stockbridge, director of Global Integration. "They need to ask the question: 'does this need to be done by me?' One of the most rewarding aspects of my role as an executive coach is when the CIO identifies the unique value they add to their function. By thoroughly scoping that role, communicating it clearly within the function and then acting accordingly, CIOs are able to both delegate more effectively and to push back if issues are being escalated unnecessarily."
Stockbridge then starts talking about what he calls 'monkey management', where you ask whose back the 'monkey' on or who has responsibility for the next bit of an activity? "Empowered individuals freely accept the 'monkey' or issue," he explains. "With delegation, they are assigned it. The end goal may be the same, but understanding the difference determines the approach taken by both parties.
"Whether through delegation or empowerment, once the monkey is transferred to a colleague then leaders need to be careful about accepting it back again," Stockbridge warns. "This does not mean that they reject requests or they don't step in if an individual is struggling – but this is not the same as 'repossessing' the monkey. Awareness of the difference is often a challenge for CIOs."
For Richard Orme, CIO at MetaPack, a delivery management platform supplier for e-commerce, a good delegation strategy is closely bound up with being agile. "If the core purpose of the CIO is to enable the business through technology, then we are well served to be able to respond quickly and efficiently to demand," he says. "CIOs need to be pursuing strategies that enable agility. But without delegation we become blockers to progress. Command and control practices, where leadership has to be involved at every step, slow decision-making and reduce agility, so they should be avoided at all costs."
Stockbridge is at pains to point out that establishing an environment in the first place in which delegation can flourish is an absolute must. "Start by demystifying your corporate structure and how systems and skills fit within it," he counsels. "Then establish an expectation with people that there will be constant, sometimes uncomfortable change. It's also important to deal quickly with power structures that may create obstructions to delegating. Then ensure that individuals have the capability, confidence and support to do their jobs without high levels of escalation. Finally, establish the right balance of trust and control."
At the end of the day, good delegation extends the reach of a CIO. It's a point taken up by MetaPack's Orme: "Delegation enables me to be part of key decisions through proxy – the question is do the decisions agree with the direction of the business? To this end, you've got to give all levels of the technology team as much information as they need to provide the context for decision-making."
Orme urges that the decision-making ability of every new recruit is considered. "From engineer to director, key questions around decision-making rationale and approach to failure form part of our interview process," he says. "Alongside our regular technical learning and sharing sessions, we also run sessions on decision making, critical thinking and rationality.
"Then it's all down to trust and regular updates," he adds. "It can be a bit unnerving and we sometimes do make mistakes, but the pros have vastly outweighed the cons, quality and productivity has improved and, perhaps most importantly, morale is up too."
Yes, delegation does come with a risk and can be scary. As Orme says, you can't delegate the responsibility for failure. "It's my job to ensure the creativity and problem-solving ability of all our engineers is given the right voice, but if you set out a stall for empowerment and autonomy, then the consequences of doing so have to be accepted and borne." Done right, the rewards are rich however. Staff satisfaction and motivation increase and, crucially, CIOs are left free to do what they do best: not messing about in the engine room, but steering the ship – so nobody drowns.