Delegating Work & Making Decisions

On any size team, the process of delegation has an effect not only how efficiently work moves forward, but also how much ownership individual team members experience over their work.

Delegation happens whenever groups of people are trying to get something done. Often, a more senior team member will delegate work to more junior members. But equally important is when peers delegate work to each other, or when a junior team member “manages up”.

A friend who works at a FAANG once remarked that “tactics is for amateurs” and explained that he only focuses on strategy when meeting with staff members he manages. In other words, he focuses on the why and to some degree the what, but not the how. In my experience the distinction between the what and the how is not always a crisp line, but more of a blurry area, but the general direction of this advice makes sense.

However, when members of the team are faced with a decision, they may not feel confident that it’s “ok” to take the decision without asking for input from others or even approval. They may not know if the decision has been delegated to them. I recently had an exchange with someone who had made a (good) decision, but was worried that the decision had been taken relatively quickly without having a chance to get other people to weigh in.

To have a better mental model for situations like this, I tried to come up with a few heuristics for how we can make decisions, that could be applied to everyone on the team equally. Let’s consider the following four parameters (the four Rs). The first two are essential, the second two are useful.

If the answer to both of these questions is “No”, e.g. we can reverse a decision and it couldn’t sink the project, then it’s generally ok to go ahead and make the decision with less input from others.

On the other hand, if the answer is “Yes” or even “Maybe” it’s a good indicator that it is important to get buy-in from the right people. Furthermore, it’s useful to consider:

Again, if the answer is “No” to these two, it’s a good indicator that it’s ok to make the decision. Only my work is directly affected, and there is a reason why the decision needs to be made right away. On the other hand, if the answers are “Yes” or “Maybe” then we have more space to involve other people, either to get their feedback or to ask them to sign-off.

In general, I think it’s good to aim for open and transparent decision-making, and letting other people chime in. So even when it’s not strictly necessary, I think it’s a good idea to give other team members a chance to weigh in or provide feedback. At the same time, it’s important that one person ultimately has the authority to make the decision.