Delegation: the boundaries of self-organisation

13 Mar 2019 Annelies De Meyere Agile & ScrumLeadership & ManagementWork is Play

We've all heard the stories, or even lived them: a company moves towards self-organising team structures, and there you go, the team should self-organise!

What you usually see is that the teams either freeze or go wild, with a sad manager observing the train wreck, complaining they are not allowed to interfere or saying things like: "See! I knew we shouldn't have given them all of these responsibilities! It's up to the Manager to keep on taking all decisions!".

But there's a simple enough technique available to you to in order to get these things out in the open, facilitate discussion and create clarity for all involved about what a team can self-organise around, and what a manager can still interfere with.

To get to this point, first of all we need to recognise that delegation and freedom are not binary things. There's a lot of grey zone in there.

Delegation is not a binary thing. There are plenty of “shades of grey” between being a dictator and being an anarchist.

Delegation is a step-by-step process. You hand over accountability to other people, in a controlled and gradual way.

Delegation is context-dependent. You want to delegate as much as possible; but if you go too far, chaos might unfold.

Purely talking about delegation we can observe 7 levels of delegation: 

  1. Tell: You make a decision for others and you may explain your motivation. A discussion about it is neither desired nor assumed.
  2. Sell: You make a decision for others but try to convince them that you made the right choice, and you help them feel involved.
  3. Consult: You ask for input first, which you take it into consideration before making a decision that respects people’s opinions.
  4. Agree: You enter into a discussion with everyone involved, and as a group you reach consensus about the decision.
  5. Advise: You will offer others your opinion and hope they listen to your wise words, but it will be their decision, not yours.
  6. Inquire: You first leave it to the others to decide, and afterwards, you ask them to convince you of the wisdom of their decision.
  7. Delegate: You leave the decision to them and you don’t even want to know about details that would just clutter your brain.

When you can agree with your team which level of delegation is most fitting for different decision areas in your organisation, discussions will be out of the way and both manager and team will know exactly what boundaries to move in. To facilitate this discussion and definition of the delegation levels for decisions, I highly recommend the Delegation Poker cards from Management 3.0. 

How does Delegation Poker work?

The rules are the same as for Planning Poker. You go through one decision area at a time and participants show (at the same time) the relevant delegation level. The highest and lowers numbers are explained. Iterate over to get consensus. By explaining the point of view, you iteratively clarify the situation in which decisions are taken and why a specific level of delegation would be ideal. 

The technique as such can be gamified to push for a certain behaviour: you want to delegate as much as possible to the teams, right? So we score and put a silly little incentive next to it. You score points according to the level of delegation you wish to agree on (So tell = 1 point, delegate =7 points). However, the single highest outlier does not score (e.g. if in the entire team only 1 person puts down a 7). This is to avoid people just throwing down 7 all the time to skew the scores, they need to think twice before taking the risk and they will have to be able to explain their reasoning. 

The maturity level of your team 

Keep in mind when delegating that the maturity level of your team is of high importance when scoring the decisions. A team that feels uncertain may want to leave a lot of the decisions with the manager, whereas a team that is overconfident might want to just get the manager away as far as possible, even if they're not ready for it. As a manager, it's important to also have that discussion openly with your team. Explain to them why you feel a certain level of delegation would be more fitting and for how long. This kind of baseline explanation and possibility for growth towards more delegation may actually turn out to be a nice non-linear metric to use for growth paths, and gives you a nice link with HR evaluation purposes.

Authority boards

In order to really get this anchored in your organisation, we recommend the use of an authority board. This board allows you to identify the decision areas in the organisation that need to be clarified for delegation, to visualise the current level of delegation and even to get some clear action points defined in order to delegate more.

So how does it work? First of all you gather the impacted teams and decide on 3 to 5 decision areas that need to be clarified. This is more than sufficient for a first iteration. They can go from holiday arrangements to tooling to choice of hardware and even employee evaluation.

Once these are defined, you play delegation poker with the team to find out how they feel these areas should be delegated. It's a conversation, so be careful to listen to concerns and objections, for they will be valuable information later on. 

At this point there are several options:

  • You fully agree on a certain level of delegation, and agree that it should not evolve anymore (e.g. budgets for purchase of office material) -> the item is clarified can be taken off of the board
  • You feel the team should take up a higher level of delegation, but they seem reluctant -> ask the team what they need to feel more comfortable, create an action list
  • The team wishes a higher level of delegation than you are willing to give them for certain reasons -> check with the team what action points they are willing to take up to convince you of the opposite
  • If all fails and an endless discussion arises from trying to define the delegation level of a certain decision area: as a manager, you can decide to leave it for the time being, and revisit this one at a later moment in time. IMPORTANT: define a date or time period during which this will be revisited, and stick to it!

What next?

Once your delegation board is in place, it is up to you as a manager, the teams and their supporting roles to make sure the actions are taken up on the backlog/action log. It's always a good idea to evaluate the status during a team retrospective, so you can check whether the actions were a good idea in this context, or change and experiment with other possible actions to get to the delegation level you are aiming for. 

And don't forget, revisit the board regularly, maybe at least twice to 4 times a year, to validate, update and verify progress, so that the team and the entire organisation are aware of their achievements!

Only team vs manager?

The description above is mostly aimed at managers and their teams, but that is only the start of the delegation poker and authority board adventure! For any situation in which decision areas need to be clarified and a level needs to be defined at which decisions can be taken, this tool can come in handy. As a tool it sparks conversation and interaction, it boosts experimentation and gives a hightened insight on the context and decision flows.

That's why you can take in several context related elements and not just talk about the manager/team relationship, but also the PO/team relationship, or the manager/PM, or PM/PO/agile teams. It can help you clarify things during the mess of a transition and speed up the needed change that a lot of organisations are looking for.

So hesitate no longer, create your authority board! Or ping us if you would like us to support you with that.