Jobs are hyper-specialized. So, "in-charge of Task 123" usually is pretty clear. But, it's not so clear on the special projects, the innovation initiatives, the cross-functional process improvement teams, the strategic planning teams. With members from multiple levels and from multiple organizations, it becomes less clear who has the power to decide when faced with alternatives. This lack of clarity inhibits the effectiveness of the team. That is why decision rights are important.
Simply put, decision rights state how each member will be involved in the decisions the team faces. To put a fine point on it...are we voting on everything ?
Groups of people working together to solve a problem inevitably face decisions that affect what will be done, how, and by whom. In typical projects, there are many decisions to be made. Some are intrinsic to specialized tasks that are clearly owned by a member. The manager/facilitator cannot and does not want to make all those decisions. The whole group cannot be slowed down by prepping for and chiming in on all those decisions. Empowerment must happen. But, overall, anarchy cannot happen. There is a tension between coordination and empowerment. Project leaders who do not resolve this uncertainty are flirting with failure.
All projects are like waves, in which the members of the group come together to get on the same page, then separate to work on individually assigned tasks, then come back together, then separate, etc etc etc. When we separate to do our assigned work, decision rights are usually very clear. I am supposed to decide how best to do the things I was assigned. But when everyone comes back together for coordination and course correction based upon latest information -- these are the moments when clarity on decision rights is most important…and most often missing. Will the PM decide? Will the group vote? Will the squeaky wheel decide?
What we need is a clear statement of decision-rights. That is: who gets to decide what?
Most project managers know to control the project by using phases. On analytical or planning projects particularly, it is vital to specify decision-gates between phases, because pruning the tree of possibilities is essential to focus the energy of the team. Everyone needs to understand how this pruning is going to happen, because that knowledge will shape their expectation of participation -- which will affect their engagement and creativity. It's a balancing act that requires wise management choices, based upon the nature of the team and of the problem. The leader must specify in advance how each of these phase-gate decisions will be made. This is part of the clear communication habit that characterizes good leadership.
Here's an example of how project phasing and decision gates work together.
Let's assume the project manager chooses the Wave Model template for the group project. She would divide the process into seven phases. And, SOMEONE must make a decision prior to closing each phase and proceeding to the next:
- Problem definition
Have we adequately defined the problem?
- Solution brainstorming
Have we generated enough ideas for how to approach solving it?
- Solution evaluation
Have we adequately debated the pros/cons of each idea?
- Solution selection
What idea will we pursue?
- Implementation planning
Have we prepared a plan that can be implemented?
Are we done?
Have we adequately documented our experience and learnings?
In advance, the group leader must communicate to the team members how she expects these control-gate decisions to be made. For instance,
"We will use the following decision rights on this project:
Leader decision on phases 1, 2, 4, 6
Majority vote on phases 3, 5
Unanimous on phase 7 "
Now, the leader has published a road map for where the group will travel. This road map allows the leader to communicate clearly "we are here" messages along the way. And, it specifies who will be making each of the key decisions for the project.
Life is a multi-stage game. How leaders treat project members on the current project will affect how those members engage on future projects. Leaders …even cultures…. benefit from the creativity and engagement of team members over time only to the extent those members feel the process is fair and transparent. When those conditions fail, trust disappears. This is when engagement falls, replaced by groupthink and sycophancy. This is the end of creativity and innovation within the organization. It is also the beginning of the exodus of the creative members.
No one expects you to abdicate authority or responsibility -- that's why you sit in the corner office. You are not creating a vote-for-everything culture. You are simply being clear about the boundaries of delegation and participation. Remember, there is a correlation between engagement and creativity. You get to choose where you want to be on the engagement/creativity continuum on each project. Then, members can make appropriate investments of their energy and creativity -- without feeling bait-and-switched later. Setting and delivering on employee expectations in this regard is essential to long-term corporate creativity.