How to Let the People Closest to the Work Decide

agile leadership agile teams decision-making

By Julie Springer

May 12, 2022

It is a common frustration for teams to be told what to do, without the opportunity to provide input or guide the decision, based on their knowledge and experience. If your goal as a leader is to support Agile, self-organizing teams, you have no doubt heard the phrase, “Let the people closest to the work decide what to do.” The idea is that the people who are down in the details of what is going on are in a better position to make decisions about what solutions to implement. 

Certainly, teams that hear directly from customers, understand their challenges and intimately understand how products and services work on the ground have an advantage over leaders who understand the strategy but don’t really know what it takes to develop, integrate or support the solutions. In this way, teams are likely to make better decisions. As an added and important benefit, their job satisfaction and motivation increases when they have the authority to choose the solutions. It also speeds up the process because teams often end up in holding patterns, waiting for leaders to have time to make decisions.

The problem is that treating it like an either/or choice makes it really difficult to shift from leaders making decisions to teams deciding. An either/or choice means that either the leader decides OR the team decides, with no gray area in between. You get stuck because it feels too risky to completely hand over decisions, even if you sincerely desire to empower your teams.

A more useful approach is to:

  1. Define levels of delegation
  2. Develop guidance for what types of decisions to delegate
  3. Make a plan to gradually increase the level of delegation

Step 1 - Define levels of delegation

To solve the problem of the either/or choice, you need to define more than two levels of delegation and have a method for selecting what level to apply. A highly effective approach for this comes from the practice of Delegation Poker, created by Management 3.0. In Delegation Poker, there are seven levels of delegation, with increasing delegation as you move from level one to level seven. For levels 1-3, the manager or leader makes the decision. Level 4 is a joint decision, and for levels 5-7 it is the team that decides.

  • Level 1 - Tell: The leader decides on their own and informs the team of the decision
  • Level 2 - Sell: The leader decides on their own and then tries to sell the team on the decision
  • Level 3 - Consult: The leader consults with the team, before they decide
  • Level 4 - Agree: The leader and team make a joint decision
  • Level 5 - Advise: The leader advises the team, before the team makes the decision
  • Level 6 - Inquire: The leader inquires about the decision, after it is made by the team
  • Level 7 - Delegate: The leader fully delegates the decision to the team

By defining levels of delegation, you can get into those important shades of gray to understand how you are going to decide, and be clear about the communication that will happen as part of the decision-making process. To learn more about how to use Delegation Poker to set the level of delegation for different scenarios, visit Management 3.0.

Step 2 - Develop guidance for what types of decisions to delegate

Along with defining levels of delegation, you need to have organizational clarity around what is appropriate to delegate. While the goal may be to increase delegation, it would be extreme to say that all decisions belong in the hands of teams.

"The right level of delegation is a balancing act. It depends on a team's maturity level and the impact of its decisions. Delegation is context-dependent" - Jurgen Appelo, Management 3.0

Given that there is no one right answer that always applies, it’s tempting to just say, “Delegate to the greatest extent possible.” However, setting a vague goal like this doesn’t provide enough clarity and will lead to continued frustration. I recommend developing written guidelines, created by representatives from leadership and the teams. These guidelines are not set in stone and should be revisited regularly. The guidelines might include something like the following:

  • Decisions that are strategic, have far reaching impacts and affect the organization broadly are best made by leaders. These decisions tend to impact areas such as organizational strategy, budgets and compliance with regulations. (Delegation levels 1-2)
  • Decisions that are more tactical, impact the team's work and have a more local rather than global effect are best made by teams. These decisions tend to involve areas such as solution design, who does what work, how much work to take on, working agreements and what constitutes done. (Delegation levels 6-7)
  • Decisions that are in-between these two levels are best made collaboratively by leaders and teams, through advising, consulting and/or joint agreement. These decisions tend to involve hiring team members, team design, solution strategy and tool or process choices that impact multiple teams. (Delegation levels 3-5)

Step 3 - Make a plan to gradually increase the level of delegation

By completing the first two steps, you will have provided a great deal of clarity around how decisions are going to be made and why. The final step is to make a plan to increase the overall level of delegation over time, so that you can achieve the benefits of making better decisions, improving job satisfaction and making decisions more quickly.

This needs to be an intentional and gradual process. It won’t happen overnight and it will require continued focus. Consider the barriers that keep you and other leaders from trusting teams to decide and start working to overcome the barriers. Common barriers include:

  • Teams don’t understand the strategy well enough to make good decisions
  • Teams don’t have the skills to evaluate solution options effectively

First, consider whether these beliefs are true. Keep an open mind and question your assumptions. Start asking team members for their perspective. They may have more insight and skill than you are aware of. Once you have a better understanding of the gaps, make a plan to address them.

If team members don’t understand the strategy, it is your responsibility to provide more information and clarity. Begin to increase the information that is shared at the team level and have conversations to make sure the information is understood. If team members don’t have the skills to evaluate solution options, provide professional development opportunities, through coaching and training. The best way to learn is through experience, so include team members in the decision-making process, with the goal of helping them to grow. Teach them how to think like a leader and apply strategic thinking.

The reason many organizations fail to empower their teams and move to a shared leadership model with delegated decision-making is because the leaders don’t have a method to put their good intentions into practice. By following these three steps, you move from intention to action in a way that includes everyone who needs to be a part of the change.

Receive Practical Tools and Tips

Start by downloading the guide: How to Use Discovery to Focus Your Agile Teams on Solving the Right Problems and gain free access to powerful resources, delivered to your inbox every week. 

You will be added to our email list and we will send you practical guidance and tools for Outcome-Driven Planning. Unsubscribe at any time.