Leadership and Decision Making

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A good leader has to be a visionary, a teacher, a motivator, a facilitator, and other things, but she must also be a decision maker. The same is true of lead engineers for technical issues. So the question becomes, at what point does a leader’s decision making damage self-organization? First, when the team loses respect for the leader. But what causes loss of respect? The answer: when the manager begins making unilateral or arbitrary decisions. The more unilateral decisions, the less participation from the team, and the less likely the decisions are to be effectively implemented.

Every team and situation are different, so there isn’t a quantitative answer to the question of how many unilateral decisions are too many. However, even though presenting absolute numbers risks misinterpretation, I think the following guidelines may help define appropriate “levels” of leader decision making that will continue to foster self-organization. This rough guide is one unilateral decision every month or two, three to four decisions per month with team involvement, and then delegate the hundreds of other decisions to the team. In practice, few good managers make completely unilateral decisions—they normally talk issues over with at least key members of their team. But occasionally there is a need to get things moving by making a unilateral decision. In that same vein, it is appropriate for leaders to make certain decisions with team participation, but if they are making more than three or four of these decisions per month, even with team involvement, they are probably too absorbed in the details.

Another issue related to management decision making is the leader’s job of absorbing ambiguity. In fast-moving product development efforts in which key decisions must be made quickly, consensus (unanimous) decision making fails, but even participatory decision making can get mired in discussion and debate. Many product development issues, both technical and administrative, may be fuzzy and ambiguous. In these cases, after participation has evolved to a certain point, managers have to be willing to make final decisions. “Well, the information available to us isn’t crystal clear, but to move forward with the project, we’ll go in this direction.” Leaders often have to bring clarity to ambiguous situations—and teams work better because of it. Self-organization does not mean abdication of leader decision making, but careful evaluation of when and where each entity needs to make decisions.

Good leaders have earned the credibility to make these decisions. The technical staff respect the leader’s judgment (based on previous actions taken), participate in the analysis and debate process, and willingly accept the decision to move on. The leader has absorbed the ambiguity of the situation, whereas leaving the decision to consensus would have bogged the project down in interminable debate. Good leaders know when to step in and take charge and when to encourage the team to take charge. They also know when to dig into why team decision making isn’t working as it should.

There is a lot of mis-information, mis-definition, and misinterpretation of information about self-organization in the Agile community. Good teams are empowered and experience a degree of autonomy—the best teams also understand their are limits in each of these areas.