How To Delegate Decision Making Without Descending Into Chaos

How To Delegate Decision Making Without Descending Into Chaos
Imagine a word to describe your favourite sports team charging around on a field in orchestrated perfection. Coordinated? Efficient? Purposeful? Whatever you came up with, it probably wasn’t “anarchy”. But why is it that we can accept the best performing sports teams have highly autonomous players making split-second individual decisions all the time with minimal oversight, and at the same time think that applying the same principles to your employees will descend into chaos? Bad management, that’s why. So how do you do it?

Overshare information

Everyone on a sports field has close to perfect information about the current state of play. As mentioned in this post on the right people for flat organisations, information is critical if you plan on delegating decision making to employees. So much so, that the best strategy is to overshare information. Steve Jobs had this to say about Apple: “Every Monday we review the whole business,” he said. “We look at every single product under development. I put out an agenda. Eighty percent is the same as it was the last week, and we just walk down it every single week. We don’t have a lot of process at Apple, but that’s one of the few things we do just to all stay on the same page.”


Broadly there are two aspects to accountability. The first is to ensure there’s always someone directly responsible for any project or decision. There is no ambiguity in what the goalkeeper on a football team is responsible for. Again, from Apple: “At Apple there is never any confusion as to who is responsible for what. Internal Applespeak even has a name for it, the ‘DRI,’ or directly responsible individual.” The second aspect is actually holding people accountable. When I was doing my MBA (one of my dirty secrets), I’d commonly hear people refer to wanting profit and loss responsibility. What this normally meant is they wanted the power, prestige, and pay of a senior role, but when push came to shove (e.g. they missed their targets) they’d be the first to try and dodge the bullet. If you live by the sword you have to die by the sword. What most people don’t realise is that the most effective accountability actually comes from peers. Research from Joseph Grenny (author of four NYT bestsellers) showed that broadly:
  • bad teams have no accountability
  • mediocre teams have members who are held accountable by their manager
  • high performing teams have members who hold each other accountable


This is tangentially related to information – as feedback is a form of information – but in general it’s far easier for someone with large amounts of feedback to operate autonomously. People need feedback for decision making; without it they can’t adapt and optimise their performance. They also need it for psychological reasons; a feeling of competence at what you do is absolutely critical for motivation. To overuse the sports analogy, most players know exactly how well they are performing at any point in time. A salesperson who gets immediate feedback on her performance (in the form of a sale), will normally be able to operate more autonomously than a software engineer who may be quite far removed from the business impact of her work (unless you do a very good job of setting targets for that engineer). It’s also worth noting that unexpected positive feedback (e.g. a random email saying thanks) has been shown to motivate more than feedback that occurs in a predictable pattern (e.g. a weekly review).

Aggressive decision making

It probably goes without saying, but delegating authority starts with letting people make their own decisions. While the “Fail fast” mantra has become something of a controversial topic, few people would disagree that fast decision making is key to running a successful business in today’s fast moving climate. Google is particularly aggressive about this: “Decisions should never wait for a meeting. Otherwise, the velocity of the company is slowed to its meeting schedule. If a meeting needs to happen for something to get done, hold the meeting as soon as possible.”

Teams should be as small as possible

For all the above reasons, small teams are preferable to larger ones. They share information and feedback more efficiently, make decisions faster, and are more accountable. From Adam Lashinsky, author of Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired—and Secretive—Company Really Works: “The number isn’t important, what’s important is that smaller is better than bigger in terms of getting things done. Jobs recognition was this: we are now a big company and we need to do all these various things. But we can’t have a large group working on critical projects. Small groups lead to responsibility and accountability. The same is true of the small group that runs Apple — the executive team.” Still sound like anarchy? I hope not. Let me know if you have any other thoughts on delegating decision making at Either that or we can talk about actual anarchist philosophy.