Quadrant I: Delegate or Die!

Urgent and Important

I seriously considered not even writing about the first Quadrant of the Time Management Matrix. I've written previously about keeping tasks from sliding down the slippery slope towards becoming both urgent and important, so I figured that I'd already covered my utter hatred for getting stuck working in Quadrant I. That being said, it's not just about effective planning. Planning will certainly stave off the slide toward Quadrant I, but you can't prevent every fire.

The best response to a fire? Call a fire-fighter.1 As a manager, we can't try to put out every fire. For folks like myself, who started out their career being the problem-solver, giving up the need to fix things is VERY difficult. I have a constant desire to tinker and a constant desire to fix what is broken. I hope I never lose that entirely. However, if we choose to be the go-to problem-solver, we'll end up living in Quadrant I. We'll never sleep, never plan, and never keep all of the other things we have to do later in line.

This is where delegation comes in. As a manager we have people (well, those of you who have been able to completely staff your teams, anyway). These people have jobs to do, but one of the best ways to effectively groom people to succeed and improve is to give them new, difficult things to do. Enter the fire-fighter.

Penelope Trunk, over at The Brazen Careerist, wrote a great post titled 7 ways to be a better delegator. I happen to agree with all seven ways. She also makes a fantastic point about how this relates to mentoring:

Hands-off management isn’t respectful — it’s negligent. People want mentoring and guidance from their manager. If you give that in a way that helps them grow while also treating them with respect, they’ll love having you around. And when your direct reports love having you around, they do their best work for you out of loyalty. Even younger workers — those notorious job-hoppers — are loyal to respectful, hands-on managers.

After reading the article, I was somewhat relieved that I'd figured most of this out already, (though I admit that I try to put out fires every now and again just to remind and be reminded that I still can). I make a real effort to keep my staff from needing to do any of the busy-work or crap-work that has come down the line. For instance, in functional and design specification writing, it makes more sense to have an engineer concentrate on the concepts and communicating them effectively than on document formatting. I can handle cleaning up a document... it takes me only a few minutes to re-format a document in Word, and hey, it's kinda fun making everything line up perfectly.

Managers have to become ok with being good at silly things so that they can give the fun, interesting and difficult tasks to their employees. This is a two-outcome strategy. If they succeed, two things happen - first, they look good; second, you look good for having good employees. If they fail, it's a learning experience for them and also for you as you get to find out by example what they're capable of so that you know where they need to grow.

This is about to lead into a post about mentoring. Maybe another time... I don't want my new employees who might google me to get all of my management secrets right away.

Back to the central point - handling Quadrant I tasks. If you don't have someone to whom you can delegate, don't spend too much time trying to get out of doing the work. It has to get done, and the sooner it's done, the sooner you can get back to Quadrants II and III, which is where you should spend the bulk of your time. Obviously, if you have an appropriate person to whom you can delegate, you should do it with prejudice! It's your job as a manager to keep the nonsense things out of the way of your employees. So, by giving them emergencies to handle, they grow, you look (are) good, and everyone's happy. Eventually, you look like the person who can handle anything that gets thrown their way.

The funny thing about that is that at said point you actually are that person. To me, that's a great goal. It requires some strategy to how you handle what gets thrown at you, but if you combine that with proper planning, proper prioritization and proper maintenance, you should be pretty effective at it.

  1. Bear with me? I know the analogy is corny.

Jan 30th, 2008