What does decentralized decision-making really look like?

product development decentralized control

Topics: Organization

Adaptability and the ability to react quickly is paramount to successful product development. Typically, the project team can make better and/or faster decisions than management because they are closer to the details of the project. But, does decentralized decision-making mean leaders are out of a job?

No, definitely not. As a leader, it is not your responsibility to tell the team how and what to do with the project, but it is your responsibility to provide guidance and a vision to the product teams. This means providing the necessary guidelines so the team can make easy, adaptable and fast decisions. It’s getting everyone on board to achieve a common goal.

An earlier post “How to lead product development teams: Mission-Type Orders” describes how the military implements decentralized decision-making. This post describes what decentralized decision-making can look like in your company.

The Pledge

In order for the team to make good quality decisions it is imperative that the team has clearly stated goals and boundaries. We handle that in a Pledge, which is determined by both senior management and the team at the onset of the project. The Pledge typically includes: objectives, timelines, resources and budgets, roles and responsibilities and definition of the team’s decision-making authority. Rather than having the project team stop work for regular status meetings and gate meetings, it is more efficient and effective to require the team to report only on exceptions. Exceptions would include finding they cannot meet one of their targets or if there is a slip in the schedule.

Team meetings

The forum for team decision-making is typically a 15 minute stand-up meeting. The frequency of the meetings depends upon the urgency of the project and the speed at which the assumptions are resolved. The following three questions[i] are typically asked at a 15 minute stand-up meeting:

  1. What progress have you made since the last meeting?
  2. How will you work toward your next key milestone?
  3. Are there any issues or obstacles that you face?

In addition, when applicable, or if the project has a lot of uncertainty, include the following questions to ensure that assumptions are resolved and that the team is in alignment with the Pledge. These questions help the project team identify exceptions requiring reporting, and evaluate whether a project should be killed or continued. (This may be best handled in a separate meeting.)

  1. What assumptions have been resolved?
  2. Are we on track with our objectives?
  3. Are there any deal breakers?
  4. Are we still within the parameters of our Pledge?
  5. Should we proceed with this project?

Leading by asking questions

The latest approach to leading teams is “leading by asking questions.” Think of it as the leader owning the questions and the team owning the answers[ii]. The leader is not expected to have all the answers but to ensure the team gets to a solution.

I worked with a senior leader that skillfully asked the project team questions instead of telling the team what to do. He was able to facilitate the team discussion without appearing to be a micro-manager by asking “As a team, what do we know, and what don’t we know about this project.” He helped the team to understand some of the finer points of the project based on his extensive experience of the organization and product. It was quite impressive, and you could really see the value he brought to the organization and the project.

[i]Ron Mascitelli, The Lean Product Development Guidebook: Everything Your Design Team Needs To Improve Efficiency and Slash Time-to-Market (Northridge, CA: Technology Perspectives, 2007).
[ii]Dan Milstein, Leadership, Uncertainty, and Self-Deception (San Francisco: Lean Start-up Conference 2014).



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