Bill was a newly appointed project manager over a mission-critical systems development initiative. Ann, Bill’s boss, trusted Bill to lead the initiative and gave him the latitude he needed to execute without getting in his way. While the two worked well together, they did struggle in one area: decision-making. They had several instances where Ann was surprised by key decisions Bill made but didn’t inform Ann. Bill also didn’t benefit from Ann’s experience on several issues and made uninformed decisions that hurt the project. Ann asked Bill to include her more on decisions, but Bill took that as him needing to come to her on decisions he could have made on his own. Bill grew frustrated with his perception of Ann micromanaging him, whereas Ann just wanted to ensure she was in the loop on key decisions. The project ultimately got done, but not without a lot of friction between the two.
Friction that could have been avoided.
Key to a leader who empowers followers is the ability for the follower to make decisions without always having to ask the leader for permission. When done well, the follower is able to execute more nimbly and with greater ownership. When done not so well (as the case above), both the leader and follower are likely to be frustrated by missteps, poor communication, and potentially damaging decisions that were made without enough information. I’ve learned through doing this wrong so many times that there are four degrees of decision-making where the leader and follower agree as to the amount of guidance and input provided in decision-making. The degrees, or what I like to refer as guard rails, are as follows:
By creating four distinct decision-making categories, it acknowledges not just the extremes (get approval and don’t inform), but also acknowledges there are some decisions where a leader should provide input into a follower’s decision (seek advice) as well as those decisions where the leader should be kept in loop on the decision (inform only). By slotting types of decisions into these four categories, both the leader and follower are better aligned on the decisions being made and the degree of involvement the leader should have in the decision.
In defining decisions under each guard rail, it’s important to keep a couple of things top of mind:
To successfully implement guard rails, leaders need to do the following:
Take the time up front to get clarity on decision-making expectations using guard rails. It will help reduce friction between the leader and follower and promote a more healthy empowering relationship.
Talk about your character-building experience...
I was a young hot-shot project manager on an engagement that I had sold to a client. I had it all planned out and had delusions of completely delighting my client with an issue-free project. It all seemed so simple, then the project started...and never finished.
I'll spare you the gory details of my harrowing experience but what I can tell you is that I put more focus on selling and planning the project than I did on its execution. I took a naive attitude of the project being able to pretty much run itself with some junior analysts running the day-to-day aspects of the work. It blew up in my face and I got booted from the client never to return again. It was my inaugural visit to the project management guillotine.
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