Trust & Delegation of Decision Making

I recently read a blog post by Josh Patrick about passive ownership, which I interpreted as “learn how to trust others to make strong decisions at the right level in your organization”. I agree with everything in the article, but I left myself wondering, how does this look on a tactical level?

I learned the fine art of delegation at Amazon, where I was lucky enough to have a team of trustworthy and knowledgeable leaders reporting to me (most of whom I hired). That made it easier for me to back away and focus on longer-term, broader issues. My managers had more control over their teams, were more invested in the solutions and understood better how to set the same example for their own directs. Those types of virtuous cycles consistently make your team stronger, more active and more comfortable with suggesting and taking calculated risks. I was also fortunate enough to report to an executive who trusted me to make the right level of decisions, and who understood that I could and should own the journey toward hitting our goals.

Mr. Patrick is correct, however, in that it takes mature employees and systems as well as a clear vision and direction to make the jump without endangering the business. Your structure doesn’t have to be perfect in order to start delegating and trusting, however. It’s never too early to begin coaching your directs and showing that you care about organizational trust and growing your employees.

Identify the Correct Decision-Making Level

The goal of the effort should be to let the people who have the relevant amount of information make the right types of judgements. Treat this like a project, complete with scoping exercises, milestones and stakeholders. Create “decision buckets”: categories of decisions you believe you are and aren’t the best person to make. It’s tough to create guidelines, but a basic way to frame the exercise might be:

* If you’re an Engineer: Trust people more junior than yourself or with more expertise than yourself. Chances are, the more senior you become, the more specialized you become as well. That means you’re not qualified to make or even necessarily give input on, every decision in the company.
* Front-line manager: You’re probably slowly (or quickly) moving away from the day-to-day responsibilities of your team. At some point, you won’t have the expertise to decide on the proper way to write a puppet policy or write a tool to manage LB configs. And unless you were hired for & are expected to be a hands-on manager, you shouldn’t be required to have that knowledge. Delegate!
* Senior manager/Exec: You most likely haven’t been on call or hands-on for a few years. There’s very little possibility that you are the correct person to make decisions on technical implementation details. Don’t make it your “hobby”. Your job is to ensure that any requirements or goals are well-defined (and not by you unless you are the primary customer), and that the teams have the right resources to hit those goals.

Guard against over-rotating, and be prepared to explain why you believe some decisions ought to remain with you. For instance, I’m not planning on attempting consensus across my entire organization about career levelling definitions. My managers own the inputs and I own the review. I don’t expect or want our engineers to spend their valuable time grok’ing headcount planning in fine-grained detail. If they did, they’d be managers.

Solicit Constructive Feedback

Once you’ve recognized the need to back away, show the people around you that you’re committed to making the effort to delegate the right level of decisions appropriately. Review your “decision buckets” with a mentor and folks who are familiar with your organization to evaluate your perspective versus those of others in the org. Ask these people for feedback on where you need the most help, and listen to them. Getting defensive at this stage is a sure-fire way to make this process more combative and longer than it could otherwise be. It’s best to do this as early as possible in your soul searching. You may find that you have blind spots that have secretly impacted the well-being of your organization or your business for eons.

Now that you have a solid idea of what you’re trying to accomplish, schedule time with the target decision-maker(s) to review your current approach and your expectations, and to gather feedback from each person on their own decision-making processes to make sure your methods are aligned.

Continually Evaluate Your Involvement

Each time you make a decision, be self-aware enough to ask, “am I the correct person in the team, organization and company to make this call?” Then be honest enough with yourself to answer “no” when warranted, accept it, and do something about it. Sometimes you’re forced to make the decision anyway (people go on holiday, it’s too time-sensitive to wait for the proper person, etc), but recognize that those are one-off decisions, and do what you can to remove the possibility of it happening again in the future.

If you’re not the correct person, then include that engineer or manager in the discussion and allow them to make the call. Walk through the decision-making process with them until you’re comfortable with blind delegation, but realize that it doesn’t have to be done your way, as long as all of the requirements are met and the business goals are achieved.

Back Away Slowly

There’s no requirement for going “whole hog” on this exercise. Not only do you need to re-train yourself, but you also need to get your delegates used to the idea that they hold the keys to the kingdom in certain circumstances. Take time to do the following:

* Work with others on decision-making. (aka “teach a man to fish”) Have other people shadow you to make sure they own the right competencies to make the decisions. Continually recognize that even if the person doesn’t make the same decision you would make, it doesn’t mean that it’s the wrong one.
* Continuously revisit and modify your list of “decision buckets” to make sure you’re staying on track with growing your career and the careers of others around you.
* Recognize that you’ll go through withdrawals. Backing away slowly will allow you to take steps to avoid regressing at the slightest hint of churn or what you may believe is a bad decision on someone else’s part.

You need to show progress though, so don’t go too slowly. Since you’ve mapped out your plan, everyone should have the same expectation about the new world order. Just follow the plan. Make it a part of your own career goals and development, and review it in your own 1:1 with your manager.

Don’t Punish the Decision Maker

Sure, if someone makes a rash decision without due consideration, then they should be chastised. But if someone is diligent about gathering the proper information and has a rational argument to stand behind their decision, then practice some empathy. Would you have made a better decision if you were in their shoes? Should the decision have been delegated to them in the first place? Did the person seek and receive the right amount of coaching to make the right determination? You must allow someone to make small mistakes and learn from them. Only step in when the gravity of the decision and the risk to the business warrants it.

Fill Your Time With What You Should Be Doing

Regardless of whether you’re a front-line manager or a CEO, there’s a responsibility for growth & vision that needs to be filled by you. Instead of agonizing over everyone else’s decisions, fill the void with the roles and responsibilities that are commensurate with your position in the company. Work with your manager or mentor to figure out a plan for doing this if you’re unable to do that yourself.


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