08 November, 2006

Delegated to the Dustbin of History

November 7th is the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and there's no better day to pay homage to Trotsky and take a close look at the Mensheviks of Microsoft management and leadership.

Never fear, this isn't a Marxian analysis of Microsoft's management cadres, (even though it would be a hoot!), but an examination of a key management and leadership skill: delegation.

Walk into any rapidly expanding, successful startup company and ask the employees there if they are doing work outside of the scope of what they were originally hired to do and if they have taken on more authority to do their jobs as they see fit. More likely than not, most if not all will say yes.

Now try this experiment at Microsoft. You'll find that while most if not all employees are doing work outside of their original scope, their authority to change process or tackle issues outside of their sphere of influence is close to zilch.

How can it be that the most successful startup in history, which has a deeply entrenched corporate culture of entrepreneurism, limits the employees in the trenches to empower real change?

Simply put, its past hyper-growth reacted with a corporate desire to expand business lines, resulting in umpteen layers of management accreting. Concurrently, job scope for individuals and management alike narrowed while workload increased, and performance began to be measured against those narrowed scopes. This twin thrust has continued and even accelerated, resulting in thousands (tens of thousands?) of positions at Microsoft that have become corporate cogs in the machine.

Ironically, there is much talk in the halls about empowerment, doing the right thing, driver culture, etc. but precious few managers actually reward employee initiative that requires the employee to take on more authority. The root cause is that the current performance review system does not foster or reward delegation to achieve individual, group or corporate success.

In fact, delegation of authority tends to be anathema to management at Microsoft. Why? It is because of two reasons. Firstly, there are too bloody many micro-managers who are too paranoid to relinquish some control. Secondly, and more perniciously, it is too risky to delegate authority down because if employees screw up, it impacts manager's commitment achievements for review and bonus.

Let's look at micro-managers first. From my chair and on a daily basis I work with the direct reports of three micro-managers that span different groups. I can count on the fact that when I work with these direct reports, decisions that ordinarily could be made on the fly need to be cross-checked with their managers. Non-critical changes to projects trigger management review cycles. The icing on the cake is when those micro-managers complain to my manager that I'm not doing what they asked me to do because when I don't or won't jump through their hoops.

Because micro-managers don't/won't/can't delegate to their reports, it lowers our organizational agility, slows down development and selects for employees over the long haul that function best when told what to do all the time. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to ponder the ramifications of natural employee selection working under micro-managers over a ten-year period.

In the second case, even good managers sense the risk in delegating too much to their reports. The new performance review tool goes so far as to tacitly codify this risk by the aligned manager commitment feature. It's been made crystal-clear to me and everyone in my organization that achievement of these aligned commitments will play heavily in next year's review cycle. The not so subtle message - "Don't screw this up, or we'll all get screwed."

Looking at this from a manager's perspective, there is a negative incentive to delegate anything of consequence to direct reports because if they drop the ball, it will directly impact the manager's review and bonus; maybe even everyone on their team. So much for stretching their experience. So much for widening their scope of authority. So much for my manager's manager giving my manager more authority to share around. it also means that everyone up and down the management chain becomes reluctant to delegate things off of their plates when they're overloaded.

Hello burnout.

There is a way out of this mess and the performance tool can even be leveraged to help lead the way.

Change the review system. Again.

Mini-Microsoft led the charge to scrap the forced curve review system and it bore fruit. Here's one feature request for the Microsoft v2.0 Performance Review harvest: reward successful delegation.

Tweak the performance tool to highlight and allow individual items within a manager's commitment to be delegated to a report by forking off a sub-item or assigning the whole item. Allow the receiver of a delegated item to further delegate it or fork it into multiple sub-items that could be delegated separately. There should be no limit to how many levels down an item could be delegated or forked into separate sub-items. Each delegated item or sub-item should be weighted based upon the overall contribution to the original parent commitment that it/they derived from.

Successfully achieved delegated tasks reward the delegator based upon the % of items or sub-items achieved by delegated reports with a bonus multiplier based on how many levels down the items or sub-items were delegated. Successfully achieved delegated tasks reward the delegate based upon the % of the item or sub-item assigned to them and a bonus multiplier if delegated farther down the chain.

This achieves several goals all at once. It encourages and rewards managers to push more authority down the management chain by delegating. By forking the items, the risk is spread across teams and encourages those who over-commit to delegate further. It encourages and rewards employees by empowering them with the authority to complete items as they see fit and exposing them to projects that they might not otherwise encounter. Micro-managers that don't delegate can't maximize their merit and bonus.

As an example, one commitment a GM might have is to develop a consumer electronic device that plays video. They fork the item off into research, marketing and production sub-items, each weighted at 33% overall and delegate each sub-item to different Directors. The Director receiving the production sub-item passes it down the chain and forks it into procurement, manufacturing and design sub-items each weighted at 11% overall but 33% each at their level.

Let's say that the device gets launched but there was a glitch in procurement, but overall it was a success. For that one commitment, the overall completion rate was 89% (100% minus the 11% procurement sub-item) with a multiplier of 1.2. (Two levels of delegation.) This results in an adjusted completion rate of 106.8%, (1.2 * .89).

Following the math on down to the production Director level, their multiplier is 1.1, but they had a completion rate of 66% for an adjusted completion rate of 72.6%.

I'll leave it to you, dear readers, to suggest how HR should use the adjusted completion rates to award merit and bonus.

A final thought before I wrap this overly long post up. Even if the review system isn't tweaked to encourage delegation, all Microsoft managers should take mandatory delegation training. Managers that don't know how to delegate should not be managers.

My fifth request of Microsoft management and leadership is to send all managers to delegation training and adjust the performance review system to encourage delegation.


  1. Superb article. Hopefully management/HR and/or someone with authority will read it and act on it. You should post this entire blog into minimsft where more readers will look into it.

  2. Thank you. Some brave soul did link to it from LisaB's internal blog. Thank you, whoever you are!

    I would hope that even though I didn't post this article there, that the idea would get picked up and examined internally. I fear it may be an echo of the NIH syndrome.

    Prior to posting this article here, I did think long and hard about posting it internally. But after re-reading it several times, I went with this public forum to encourage more open discussion about the merits and potential implementation.

    While I've been blown away by the candor on the internal blog, there is a bit of a concentual hallucination going on there with regards to privacy.

    I do trust LisaB not to reveal our identity. I don't have the same warm fuzzy about the server and network admins. We're all one packet capture or log file transfer away from being outed. I will continue to participate there but will reserve my more career-limiting observations for this blog.

  3. There's another danger of delegation besides being blamed for any failure: not getting credit for any success. It doesn't matter how successful you are in management activities, you will only be rewarded at review time for your IC work. If you delegate a critical piece to a report, you will not get any credit for it going well, no matter how much you do to make sure your directs have the focus and support to succeed.

    So not only is there huge risk to delegation, there is no reward. The review process is broken.

    Now, as far as anyone from HR/management/authority reading and acting on it, well, they already know. They know they don't have effective management, but they don't have a clue why. We've hired expensive HR management development experts who've told our executives to their faces that they need to better reward managment activities, but the executives have blown them off. Too many levels of existing management would need to change, and they're too wedded to Differential Rewards. Doing something to fix the review system to produce better management and leadership would require too big a cultural change.

    They're just not willing to do it. They don't want it bad enough.