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Decision delegation done wrong

Kendall wrote in with this question and was kind enough to allow me to share the answer with y’all.
Hey Marcus, I’ve experienced that sort of thing where my boss delegates a decision back to me, but then I’m not afforded the time-capacity needed to learn more. The client wants an answer now, and if I were to research something after all my calls today, I might get to it tomorrow if I’m lucky and then something else is being pushed off.

How do I make my boss acknowledge this and give us the room in our weekly time budgets to grow in this way?
Great question, Kendall! Let’s look at this from two views, the delegator, and the delegatee.

First, the delegator.

Kendall boss is delegating a decision, but it smells they have an attitude of “I don’t care, just take care of it.”

That’s not delegation; it’s avoidance.

You can’t just avoid unpleasant things by delegating because you’re responsible for the decisions and the outcomes of those decisions. This means delegating decisions is the right road to sanity, not a shortcut. This isn’t a hack to free up your time; it’s a practice that requires work. You delegate, contextualize, check-in, discuss, and give feedback, so the person learns to make good decisions.

Delegating and then ignoring is the road to ruin. If you go down the path, at least don’t blame poor Kendall for the decision you get back.

Next, the delegatee.

Kendall framed the problem nicely. People need “room in their weekly time budgets to grow in this way.” If your boss is delegating decisions to you, do them a favor and remind them that decision-making takes time, especially if you’re in unfamiliar territory.

For example, if I ask a developer to make a decision between using language X and Y for their next project, and they have used both of them, the decision is about applying what they know to a new situation (their next project). But if I ask them also to consider language Z, which they have no experience with, I have made the decision much more complicated.

Also, ask your boss “How much time would you like me to spend on this decision?” will guide their expectations. Your boss might assume making decisions is easy because she makes them all day long, but that’s often not the case. Timeboxing your decision process helps you frame how much research is expected, and where the task fits in your time budget.

Finally, ask your boss about the risks of a poor decision. Some decisions are crucial and may take months (or years!) to make. These decisions may be irreversible, so it’s important they be right the first time. An example of this might be deciding what software language to use in the next project.

Other decisions are low risk and easily reversible, such as “what server should the database live in”? If you make a poor decision here, it’s pretty easy to move the database to a different server.


About Marcus Blankenship

Where other technical coaches focus on process or tools, I focus on the human aspects of your Programmer to Manager transition. I help you hire the right people, create the right culture, and setup the right process which achieves your goals. Managing your team isn't something you learned in college. In fact, my clients often tell me "I never prepared for this role, I always focused on doing the work". If you're ready to improve your leadership, process and team, find out how I can help you.

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