We are told, with good reason, that the modern business needs to be ‘agile’ in order to survive and thrive in a fast-changing business environment. It represents a considerable challenge for leaders: How do you organize so that the business is flexible enough to take initiatives, innovate, grab opportunities and troubleshoot quickly, while at the same time making sure that people continue to act in accordance with your strategic intent?

Some people try and build agility by concentrating all the flexible thinking at the top. They are creative, but find themselves frustrated by a rigid organization which is unable to change fast enough to follow through.

Others flatten their organizations so much that it’s hard to tell who’s in control and even harder to follow any kind of clear strategy – resources get allocated in too diffuse a fashion to make a difference in any one area. The answer depends (of course!) but here’s one piece of the puzzle: you need to be able to safely delegate responsiblity for results, and not just prescribed tasks. You are only going to do that when you trust that people understand your values, and have the competence to figure out the best way to achieve the results without always passing things up the line. Conversely, your people have to trust you that they won’t get whacked for mistakes.

Here’s a model a lot of my clients like which helps leaders at all levels to build up the culture of two-way trust and competence required.

The framework looks at the range of leader behaviours in terms of a) how directing they are, and b) how much stimulation they provide to subordinates.

The four combinations create a path that takes the subordinate from being a complete novice to being someone to whom assignments can be safely delegated. For example:

Directing (High on directing, low on stimulation from the leader) A junior may be given straightforward instructions to follow on their own – researching, checking information, getting quotes from a range of suppliers, coordinating meetings etc.
Coaching (High stimulation) Perhaps the junior drafts a report or plan, and is then coached intensively by their supervisor on structure, style, logic etc.
Supporting (Low directing, high stimulation) At this point, an increasingly confident professional might be left to produce a pitch which will then receive approval, or fairly cursory corrective feedback. The supervisor may make themselves available for help if required, but doesn’t constantly monitor every detail of implementation.
Delegating (Low directing, low stimulation) The leader may delegate responsibility for landing a project, or managing a product line, an office or client relationship, thus freeing them to develop the business strategically.

You decide where you are in your relationship with the person, and then choose a directing, coaching, supporting or delegating style as appropriate. You also take steps to help them move to the next stage. Over time, you build a team of people who will be both ‘agile’ and aligned with your strategic direction.

Bottom Line

Being ‘agile’ depends on delegating responsibility for results to people who can be trusted to use their own initiative. This doesn’t come about in a vaccum – you have to create it. Here are some quick questions to start you thinking about how you are doing:

  • Look at the situational leadership chart. Where are your team distributed along the continuum? If everyone needs direction in everything, you have a problem.
  • What are you doing week by week, person by person, at all levels in the organization, to progress people along the path from direction to delegation?
  • Is everyone (above entry level) both delegating something downward and being coached to accept greater responsibility from above, as a matter of course?
  • Have you made it as easy as possible for people to delegate assignments by providing standardised, documented systems, training and tools?

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