Zones of growth 1 – growth and delegation

I recently participated in a workshop where we discussed the growth mindset and the need to push yourself our of your comfort zone in order to learn and grow.

We spoke about the need to move out of our comfort zone if we want learn and grow. When you come out of your comfort zone, though, it is scary and you enter the “fear zone.” 

The fear zone is where you do not know what to do next, or you are not confident that you can do it as well as you want to.  This is a vulnerable place and also a tiring one, because you have to stop and think, using a lot of extra energy to focus on applying a new skill, or you have to try out a behaviour that might make you look foolish rather than awesome.

However, with persistence and deliberate practice, you will move into the learning zone, where you will convert your tentative new behaviours into new habits. After spending some time in the learning zone you gradually become proficient and what was once scary or out of reach is becomes a habit that you can apply back in your comfort zone.

Comfort zone, Fear zone, Learning zone

I agree that growth involves both conquering fear (or at least discomfort) and that it requires ongoing practice to embed new habits and capabilities rather than just trying them once. I don’t think, however that it is just a matter of pushing yourself and practicing.

I think that growth involves some skills beyond effort; like resilience, self-regulation and reflection. These things are not just traits that we are born with, but rather skills that can be taught, or learned through our own practice.

In this article I thought I would explore where I agree with the model and where it can be useful for both delegation and self-development. In a later article, I will look at where I think we should tweak the model or add a different perspective to support our personal growth and the coaching of others to grow.

Action based growth

To apply a model like this one, you can just find scary things and start doing them, but that is not the approach I would take. Instead, I would find things that seem desirable and out of reach and then start doing them.

Identifying an area to learn or practice

I looked at how to identify potential growth areas in a previous article, but we can also take a short-hand approach by asking a couple of questions:

  • What would I like to achieve here (in this role, this relationship, this initiative)?
  • How would I behave if that was really my goal?

This gives a quick baseline for what matters in a particular context. We can explore it with other questions, but the two points remain the same:

  • What would I like to achieve here?
    • Who am I doing this for?
    • What will be better as a result?
    • How will this set us up to achieve our next objective?
    • How might it constrain our future options?
    • What would I like to get out of it?
    • Is the outcome I am looking at something I think I ought to do, because others expect it of me, or is it something I really want to achieve?
    • Whose opinion matters to me – what do I think they would like to see happen?
    • Who else is involved in this – what do I want to achieve or support for them?
  • How would I behave if that was really my goal?
    • Who would excel at this (real person or fictional) – what would they do here?
    • What would I do if I knew that I could not fail?
    • What would I do if I was very brave?
    • What would I never do here – why not?
    • What is stopping me or holding me back?

Two simple questions is really enough, but the more you explore what you want and how you can go about it, the more you will flush out potential development opportunities (and clarify your goals).

Next, we can ask ourselves two more questions:

  • What am I already doing (or have done in the past) that will help me achieve this goal?
  •  What could someone else do here, that I don’t think I am good at? What new capability or approach would I love to be able to use here, if I was able to learn it in time?

I ask both questions because:

  • I think that a lot of real growth comes from finding new ways to apply or extend your existing strengths and abilities, rather than trying to fill gaps in your skillset or push through weaknesses; and
  • Of course, there are often new skills that can be learned, or new approaches that can be tried.

Finally, we set a goal by committing to something a little scary:

  • I will strive to achieve (goal);
  • While utilising (this practice or skill);
  • Because (I want to get better or be cooler or some reason).

Or something like that anyway.

The volunteer/delegate model

To practice something new, you need to volunteer to do it, or someone needs to give you permission to do it. Similarly, if you want someone to try something new, then you need to give them permission to do it and sometimes signal to them and others that they have the authority to do it while retaining your support where needed.

That leads me to a delegation/volunteering model that you might have seen before.  I made it up a long time ago, but I think a lot of others have come up with something similar.

So here it is. You create a graph with an X-axis showing “ability” and a Y-axis showing “challenge.”

A quick side note – I sometimes use this when coaching a person or team. I get them to draw this and then add different parts of their work as points on the graph showing how they relate to each other. Hopefully there are somethings that are seen as challenging (managing team mojo) and others that are straight forward (running a stand-up).  Also some people have a lot of experience/affinity to some things (working with people) and not others (understanding our products).  

This can lead to a good conversation about who in the team can help others with some tasks and also which parts of the work are more challenging. Here is a made up one for me.

Back to delegating and volunteering though.  Let’s say that I want to step up in our team and manage our OKR planning, or our KPI reporting. You and I think I am a little out of my depth, but that it is good development for me (and something you are sick of doing).  This would be a challenging piece of work, but some aspects of it would be easier for me and some would be harder.

So let’s fill out the graph together.

We agree that I can organise calendar invitations and get the templates for us to use. This is a no brainer. You can delegate that to me to free yourself up (yay for you) but there is zero development in that for me.

You can also leave me to negotiate our goals with the management team. This will suck for you though because you will not get to agree the goals. It will be good development for me in theory, but in fact we both think that I will be out of my depth, and I will get crushed like an insect (or upset everyone by demanding we fix technical debt). This is not so good either.

So what should you delegate to me?  Let’s put another image on our graph:

The ideal “flow” zone for my work

The grey shading between the lines is the perfect flow zone – I am challenged but it is within my ability to do it.  This is great delegation for both of us. I am happy to volunteer to do this stuff if:

  • I am willing to take accountability for it.
  • You will give me the authority and permission to do it; and
  • We both agree to create time for me to do it.

Perhaps we can discuss success criteria, our joint expectations etc.

The blue zone above that is also good delegation, but I will be out of my depth. We should discuss how to create “scaffolding” (support for me to succeed – you peer reviewing what I do, you showing me how you do it first etc) or we should discuss how to minimise the blast radius when I inevitably get it wrong and deliver the wrong outcome too late.

We might agree that I will summarise the data for the team, but you will also do it. I will present my findings to you and you can both review them and explain how you came to similar or different conclusions.

For both these two zones, we can go through all the questions I asked in the earlier section of this blog article. We can look at what I can build on and where I need help/practice to get really good at this stuff.

The area above the blue zone is just bad delegation. I am too far out of my depth. Maybe instead I can shadow you, or I can focus on other areas and leave this to you this time.

Below the line is still an opportunity for me to do the work, but there is less learning. In the orange shaded area, I might get something from it and maybe I can find some way to practice my new skills in doing it. However, the main reason for me doing this is to spread the work load or because it makes sense that I do these activities because they are linked to the ones I am doing for growth.

In our example, we might agree that I will review last periods results because it is part of the same job. 

Below that line can still be delegation but it is well within my comfort zone – no real learning here.  I can of course organise calendar invitations and find the organisation’s templates for us to use. This is boring work though – not growth.

Maybe we can automate or simplify the boring bits or, sometimes, maybe I can involve someone who would find this more challenging and get them to do it while I provide them with scaffolding.  Or maybe we just say – “Suck it up – someone has to do it and its your turn to take one for the team.” 

In the long run I think it is ideal for a team to use a model (or conversation) like this to look at how they can use the day to day work to support each other and grow as a team.

However it can also be great to look at your own development in terms of understanding your comfort zone and then picking some things to work on outside that comfort zone.

It will involve some fear and frustration and might involve some help or development. They pay-off though is that it can help you to turn a scary thing or something you can’t currently do into a do-able thing and then a habit.


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