The Project Charter and Effective Delegation

by Jason Questor
Founding Partner and EVP Learning Systems

Isn’t it amazing when, as business and project professionals, we continue to do something that we know is inappropriate and counterproductive, even when we are fully aware of what we should be doing. Delegation is one such issue, one that, if mishandled, can cripple not only project activities but the sponsoring organization itself.

Within a project, the core vehicle for delegation is the Project Charter. A well done Charter provides two things:

  1. The name and purpose of the project, the latter often taking the form of a brief product scope statement
  2. The granting of referent authority by the Project Sponsor to the Project Manager, and by extension, to the project team.

Referent authority? There are two types of authority commonly wielded by business professionals: persistent and temporary. Persistent authority is tied to rank and position within the organizational structure. Temporary authority is based on task delegation and is known as referent authority. Referent authority is the only type of authority that can be wielded by the PM and the phase group leaders within the project. This group includes the Business Analyst, Systems Analyst, Technical Lead, Quality Analyst and Implementation Analyst.

Granting of referent authority is comparable to the situation in old Hollywood westerns, where the sheriff would deputize citizens of the town when the outlaws were riding in. This was a temporary empowerment that said, in effect, “I cannot be everywhere at once. You represent me when I am not around. This means that if you say something or do something, it is as if I was saying or doing that myself. Also, I will back you up on any decisions or actions you deem appropriate, within the boundaries of the law.”

Since projects frequently interrupt normal business process, and since project stakeholders and users are almost always 100% occupied with their process activities, the presence of a strong charter with clearly indicated referent authority is the only way project personnel can legitimately interrupt normal business process. Without this, a Business Analyst must beg for user time to capture requirements.

To fully understand this, we need to understand the nature of delegation, and its impostors. True delegation has two components, both of which must be fully documented and formally accepted by the delegate:

  1. Accountability for the performance of a task towards the creation of a specific, visible and measurable deliverable.
  2. Authority scoped the nature of the delegation.

When things go wrong with delegation to a properly qualified individual, it is the Authority part that is most often missing in projects and in business in general. As humans, many of us like to hold onto power but give the responsibility to someone else. By artificially retaining power without accountability, we become the bottlenecks in our own endeavors: people who are given tasks to perform without the necessary authority to make operational decisions must check with us repeatedly and frequently for everything.  People in these situations are not delegates, they are appendages.

Which leads us to the delegation impostors. All of them issue accountability but not authority. Leaders must be cautious when delegating, and be aware of the attendant risks.

  1. Assignment is the most common impostor to delegation in business. It is the classic situation where an authority figure sends a non-voting proxy to a meeting, but no decisions can be made until the assignee reports back to the authority figure. This hamstrings the decision making power of the meeting, slows down progress, and is reliant on the accuracy of the report made after the meeting
  2. Giving Orders has a proper place: in true crisis situations. If the ship is sinking and on fire, the captain does not give the passengers the option of interrupting that fascinating game of canasta in order to don their life jackets and get in the lifeboats. The risk occurs when, realizing the huge productivity increase and absence of dissent in a true crisis, a leader may opt for a continuous culture of crisis management. In this situation, information is withheld until there is no time for reflection and discussion.
  3. Dumping occurs when an authority figure, who has all the information and authority to complete a task, summarily dumps the assignments (usually several at once) on someone else, interrupting their scheduled work.

Beyond the immediate grief to the assignees, the long term effects of assignment, giving orders and dumping include unnecessary levels of negative stress, high attrition rates among staff, failed projects, a sweatshop reputation in the industry and lost business.

So why do so many find it so difficult to delegate properly? The central issue in delegation is trust. Authority figures may worry that they can’t delegate because they can’t trust their people to get it right. On the other hand, how can the people earn that trust if they are not entrusted to perform. The answer is clearly documented delegations, with formal feedback mechanisms at a frequency proportionate to the risks. Delegates must be consulted to ensure that they believe they have the necessary knowledge, time and resources to complete the work. The limits of their authority must be carefully scoped out, so that they know when they may be “in over their heads” and need to appeal to you for a decision. They must also not be afraid to come to you should they be having difficulty with the delegated work. In this situation, you can maintain progress and dignity by engaging them in solution options, which may include scoping back the work or adding additional resources.

A leader who delegates properly creates strong, effective teams. One who does not may create problems of a far greater scope and tenure than the original delegation.

from Alpha Guerilla: The Project Leadership Lessons
(c) Jason Questor. Used by permission.