Delegation on Steroids

The best thing about being a manager is that you get to decide. You call the shots. It is thrilling to use that power to get things done. And if you want to get some bigger things done, things outside your assigned areas, you just have to convince a limited number of other managers to go along. Not everyone, only those managers relevant to a more prominent initiative. Thereby a manager is able to come up with decisions decisively, speedily and without spending too much effort on the decision process.

But here is the problem: How does a manager know what is actually “good” for the company and for people? In reality, it is often dangerous to rely on an individual maker:

  • Analytical Errors: The Assumptions and Analysis that lead to a decision might be flawed. Too few checks might have been in place that would have prevented this faulty reasoning.
  • Insufficient Information: Accurate perception is hard and very time consuming
  • Biases: Every Individual is subject to inherent biases. It is just the way the mind works.
  • Insufficient Time: With a multitude of obligations, the incentive to take a shortcut is high: “I feel it is right. How can I be wrong? So let’s go for it, now!”
  • Reality is complex: There are many situations where the tendency to do good doesn’t help at all, as all options might be grey

Out of this list, the most important killer of good decisions is time. Given enough time, you might get rid of all logical errors, get all information from all the different perspectives, rehearse the decision to remove biases and reduce the complexity of situations. Alas, there is never enough time.


So what can be done to make better decisions? Here is a list.

It starts with Delegation

Delegation is the assignment of responsibility to a subordinate to carry out specific activities. The larger the area delegated is, the more time is freed up for the manager. The opposite of Micro-Managing is Delegation.

Delegation might be the best tool to let people develop and learn. In fact, most management writers think that Delegation is the one best tool a manager has. names it one of the three foundational skills that a manager must have, besides running one on one meetings and giving feedback.

Job descriptions are nothing more than a tool for a permanent delegation. But what is most commonly defined as Delegation is the case by case, temporary assignment of responsibility for some minor purposes, which might include some minor decision- making authority.

Delegation is a skill. It requires the mastery of giving briefings, setting targets, remaining hands-off during the execution, giving feedback, etc. There are lots of ways to get it wrong.

The more Delegation is practiced, the more a company…

  • moves from Command & Control towards Mission Command
  • moves from Hierarchy to Self-Management
  • is able to relief Managers from noncritical tasks towards high value-added tasks

Let’s have a look at different options managers have to come up with decisions.


More on this graphic see: 4 Steps to move Companies towards Life.

Beyond Traditional Delegation

There are three main ways to move beyond traditional delegation:

  1. Collaborative Leadership practices, which still rely on a manager as a central decision maker
  2. An Appointed Decision maker to whom a significant and specific decision making power is delegated by a manager
  3. Voting techniques for decision making by groups

1. Collaborative Leadership Practices

With delegation, some, mostly minor choices are offloaded to subordinates. Significant choices do still need to be made by a manager. Here is a way to make those decisions as a manager, but involve everyone affected in a systematic process.

In his 2013 book “Flat Army” Dan Pontrefact comes up with a framework for collaborative leadership. One aspect of his work, the “Collaborative Leadership Action Model,” describes how a leader can get others to get more engaged in the decisions and actions that she makes.


What this 6 step model is highlighting is the need to involve the impacted people in all stages, before and after the decision has been made – and to be truthful and forthright in the following up.  I think it is a great way to get started on the way to become a collaborative leader and use the wisdom of the crowd.

2. Appointed Decision Makers

Taking delegation one step further, beyond execution, is the technique to appoint a decision maker on a case by case basis. This is a pretty radical step, as a manager needs to move beyond today’s prevailing mental model – the all-knowing manager – who knows best.

To appoint a decision maker is to make oneself step aside, to be on the sidelines, like a coach in a sports game. To not intervene in the decision process, and to accept the decision made by a subordinate is tough. After all, making decisions is at the very core of the self-understanding of most managers today.

Niels Pfläging in his short book “Organize for Complexity” provides a four-step process how to do this:


This gets tougher the more significant the decision is. If it’s just, for example,  the selection of office furniture, it might be easy. But picture delegating the decision for the procurement of a million dollar system. Any Manager delegating crucial decisions to sub-ordinates makes herself vulnerable to attacks. The Manager can be seen as weak, soft and not doing his job.

Appointing Decision makers on a large scale cannot be made in an organization which culture is stuck deep in the hierarchical way of working.  Where micro-managing is the norm delegation is usually frowned upon. A company must have embraced the “Mission Command” management style before subordinates can be appointed as decision makers for decisions that maker. Otherwise, the immune system of an organization will attack the “over-delegating, passive” Manager.

3. Simple and Advanced Voting Techniques

Voting! Pah. This is public sector stuff. It is not something we do in business. A manager decides, and execution starts. It is as simple as that.

But wait a minute:  Decisions by voting are not as strange as you might think. It is the method of choice to run the board of directors or supervisory boards, where decisions are made by voting in compliance with the statues of a company. Or think of typical steering committees, where different managers of different parts of the organization have to come up with joint decisions through consensus, the most demanding form of voting.

In fact, voting is involved in a lot of what business does. It is just not always explicit. Take for example a manager proposing a particular action and then discussing it with co-workers. By doing so, the manager is taking a measure of the constituency. People are voting by giving their opinions. This can be pictured as an informal way of voting, albeit with a non-binding result. Of course, there are hard-nosed managers out there, who make decisions on their own. But there are those Managers who know that lonely decisions are more likely to fail in execution, too.

Why not making more decisions through explicit voting?  In a team setting, this is already happening in today’s companies as agile practices such as SCRUM are adopted. Within SCRUM, there are autonomous teams who decide by consensus within the rules given by method. And there is a referee, called Scrum Master, who mediates conflicts.

In an organizational setting, voting needs the same:  Rules and a Referee. There are two options:

A. Voting controlled by a Superior

For small decisions, managers aiming to increase employee engagement can put up some issues to vote, e.g.

  • Letting people vote on possible projects through internal crowdfunding
  • Evaluating the performance of co-workers through Merit Money
  • or by allowing more and more votes on a case by case basis. First on small topics, like the purchase of office furniture and later on more crucial issues

Voting can be done by simple or qualified majority, by consensus, in secrecy or by open vote. Whatever the voting mechanism, it is essential that the manager clearly explains the rules and adopts the role of an impartial referee.

B. Voting by systematic integration of objections

Voting is has a basic shortcoming: It fails to engage people. It does not force people to come out and state true preferences. Instead, some people will estimate what their superior wants and vote accordingly, especially in open votes. To really engage people a way must be found to make everyone come out of his shell and state her or his opinion.

One of the most elegant ways to vote on a team level is supplied by Holacracy (see Holacracy, Liberation and Management 3.0).  In the “integrative decision-making process,” a proposal is presented, clarified, discussed and amended in 6 stages until all objections to it have been taken care of and the proposal is adopted.


Basically, this is a consensus vote that addresses the main shortcoming of consensus votes, namely that nothing is ever decided. It does that in ingenious ways:

  1. It provides a clear script that specifies how and when to engage in the discussion
  2. It involves everyone,  giving introvert and shy people a place and time to speak out in a protected environment
  3. A facilitator is specified at the start of the meeting and keeps the meeting on track
  4. Social pressure is applied on every objector to remain reasonable, as each objection is discussed step by step in front of all other meeting participants. Thereby proposals are not drowned in an unidentifiable mass of resentment, but the irritation, the objections, are identified and discussed on the smallest, most concrete base

In a company context, this process can be tuned to achieve even more decisiveness. The consensus requirement might be lifted and replaced by a majority vote. As with all Agile concepts, tinkering is possible to suit the process to the situation at hand.

Accelerants: Values and Constitutions

Adopting any mode of making more participative decisions is easier if companies embrace values, that promote employee participation. Like Netflix, which even publishes its continuously updated values and value stories for anyone in the world to see in the Netflix Culture Book.

Practicing values means making those values the basis for the hard decisions about salary increases, promotion, and firing. Not just for some inconsequential HR exercise.

But values only allow a company to get so far to self-management: Any list of values is far too vague to give sufficient direction to most real decisions. A manager is left with a lot of leeway to interpret and apply values in daily business.

Self-managed, networks teams cannot be run on this arbitrary level.  The solution is to adopt a corporate constitution. Such a document codifies how authority is distributed, in processes and committees. It is based on values, but it is far more concrete than that. It is a document detailing the distribution of power,  with checks and balances.

An example of a corporate constitution is given by Holacracy.

Conclusion: Actions speaks louder than words

It amazes me how much is written about leadership, corporate values and corporate culture in contrast to the tiny volume that is written about the hard facts like decision-making processes.

Tae Hae Nahm, Managing Director of Storm Ventures, in an interview with the New York Times:

“No matter what people say about culture, it’s all tied to who gets promoted, who gets raises and who gets fired. You can have your stated culture, but the real culture is defined by compensation, promotions and terminations.

Basically, people seeing who succeeds and fails in the company defines culture. The people who succeed become role models for what’s valued in the organization, and that defines culture.”

Talk and action need to be the same. Therefore, I think Management and Leadership are really one. To talk about leadership without addressing the hard facts that management stands for is all but empty talk. Time to get real and try some new decision methods to come up with better, more timely decisions -while at the same time getting people engaged and companies innovative.

Sounds like a total win for me!

That’s what I think. What do you think?


Hiring like a Pro: Lessons from Google

How would HR look like if bright engineers where to design it from scratch? Google scrutinized every conventional business wisdom and came up with  a data driven, tested and continuously improved new way to hire.

Hiring is the most important management skill – by far

Hiring is the key skill of a manager. There is consent on that in management literature – from academics like Peter Drucker to practitioners like Steve Jobs or Eric Schmidt. Yet conventional hiring processes do not reflect this urgency.

Conventional hiring seeks to get someone “good enough” for a job, balancing the needs of the position and the funds available. In contrast, Googles approach is to look for persons that “will grow”: A candidate does not need to be sufficiently qualified –  just yet. But he certainly needs to show the potential to grow even beyond the job that is currently on offer.

In order to achieve this, the whole hiring process has been dissected and revamped:

google hiring.jpg

Do not trust a manager – use a committee

Googles approach is derived from the academic outlook of their founders. In Universities, recruitment is not done by the “superior”, but by a committee. Universities need to commit to their faculty members for a long time, as results of academic work are really visible only in the long term. So extra care is taken in the selection process. Goggle has brought this “extra care” to the business world by putting committees instead of individuals in the drivers seat of the hiring decision.

A decision for a co-worker should be influenced by the persons a candidates will work with. Most day to day interactions will be done inside the team – not with the manager that the candidate will work for. Committees are a way to…

a. eliminate personal biases of the manager

b. of any other individual in the committee, i.e. co-workers, HR representative and peers

b. to enforce rigor into the process, the discipline to stick to high standards.

But committees are not enough. Watch this scene from Moneyball, a 2011 film based on the real, overwhelming success of the Oakland Athletics Baseball Team in 2002/2003, where a committee tries to pick new players for the season.

Committees are prone to conventional biases, as individuals are. They need data and a process to deliver optimal value.

Use Data to eliminate biases

In order to eliminate biases data about the candidate data needs to be gathered:

  • Tests are used wherever possible: Work sample tests, Cognitive (IQ) tests, Conscientiousness Tests. Test have a higher correlation to a successful future of the candidate than any other predictors, including the CV
  • Past performance of other, former candidates are scrutinized for correlations with educational background, upbringing, activities etc.
  • KPI’s are defined and graphically presented in order to compare average and median values for the actual and past candidate population as well as the google employee population (by organizational unit or function)
  • Interviewers performance itself is measured on input factors (how many interviews performed, on-time start of interviews, number of re-schedulings) and output factors (candidate performance rankings after 6 and 12 month). This allows continual optimization of the hiring process itself

For every candidate decision data is made available to all committee members in the form of briefing packages. This briefing material is not unlike executive briefing packs in detail, accuracy and cleanliness.

Takes this cue from “Moneyball”: It takes a lot of data gathering, a lot of number crunching and a lot of pre-reading from everyone involved in the process.

Is this efficient?

Hiring to high standards is extremely  frustrating: Just filling a position is much more simple than trying to recruit a person that “will grow” even beyond the position. It is time consuming, there is a high churn rate of rejected candidates. The result of the most of the careful work of a 4 to 5 person committee is to say “no” to a candidate at the end. What a waste!

Each employee needs to spend 1,5 (e.g. a member of a committee without interview duties) to 10 hours (an interviewer in high demand because of her interviewing skills) per week on hiring. That is 3% to an extreme 20% of overall working time. Is this efficient?

Lazlo Bock (see sources) makes the point that all the time spend in hiring is rewarded by the future contribution of the employee. And for those that this lofty statement is not enough he comes up with this: Google is spending much less on external training than other companies. Internal training by employees for employees is highly encouraged.

The final balance is not clear, as individual contributions are subject to so many influencing factors. As Google is mostly hiring extremely bright engineers who train other bright engineers, the probability is that this process is effective as well as efficient.

Amazon’s hiring processes show similarities with Googles Processes in many aspects. Amazon employs a group of senior interviewers that have the final word in every hiring discussion. This group is called “Bar Raisers” and consists of valued employees who hold this role in addition to their other obligations.

For other, more conventional companies, the verdict might be different and involve more of a judgement call of how important people actually are to the companies type of business. In every industry managers declare “people” as being key to success. But having excellent people is worth nothing, if they do not have the autonomy to do anything else than their daily toil.

Good people matter – if the organization provides a framework of space and time for them to blossom.

Google’s management framework is geared towards providing this freedom – see last post.

What to do in conventional companies?

Beside Google and the odd Baseball team, who else is emphasizing hiring so much?

  • The whole professional sports world has been the subject to data revolution since “Moneyball”, e.g. NBA, NFL and the various European Soccer Leagues
  • Most of Silicon Valley’s companies have a  very special take on the hiring process. Most share elements with Google, e.g. Amazon or Apple
  • Traditional companies, such as the Grocer Wegmans, are cited by Lazlo Bock as traditional companies having a strong focus on the hiring process and delivering excellent results- even in low margin businesses

A final word be said by a leader of a much less elitist organization than Google:

“You need to have a collaborative hiring process.”

Steve Jobs

Good Managers – Good Teams: Lessons from Google

Is management important to a organisations success? How much hierarchical power is helpful? Where is the tipping point where too much power becomes detrimental to an organisations success? Let’s take a look what Google Inc. has found out.

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Exponential Organizations – a way forward for traditional companies?

An “exponential organization” as defined by Salim Ismael is a business model that is poised to take advantage from the digital revolution. It leverages the abundant nature of information goods to transform business models of any sector, even physical, manufacturing or brick & mortar based sectors.

Even traditional companies can harness the power of the digital revolution, change their direction and tweak their organizational structures in order to propel their business forward – instead of viewing the digital revolution as a threat, a head wind.
They can use it by changing their organization, their course and flexible exploring where customer value is – they can harness the power of the digital storm and sail.

Here is how.

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Force 3: Big data

Data itself is useless. It is the act that follows the interpretation of data is important. This is nothing new and has nothing to do with the digital revolution. Individuals or companies that fail to use all data at their disposal are underachieving.


Over the ages, people have always invented techniques to make data “actionable”. One prime example invented in the 12th century by Italian merchants is double entry book keeping, which is still the basis for all accounting today. The sheer amount of financial transactions threatened to overwhelm merchants. They were loosing the transparency of their business, they lost track were their business was heading. Double entry book keeping changed that and continues to do that today.

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