For the past three years, Ben has been a senior developer at Artificial Intelligence company DTIK, where he was one of the first hires. Following recent fundraising, DTIK’s CTO has asked Ben to become a Tech Lead and recruit his team. Six months later, he’s now supervising three junior developers on top of his own individual contributor’s responsibilities. While the junior developers’ onboarding went well, Ben is having much trouble delegating projects to them.
When he organises and divides work into tasks, the developers do well, but that takes him a lot of time. When he lets them manage a project from start to finish, they either make the wrong decisions or systematically ask his permission on every single choice they have to make. He now thinks he made a mistake in the hiring process and is considering letting the developers go.
What should Ben do?
Like most self-taught managers, Ben thinks that learning to manage a project autonomously and make the right decisions should come naturally. After all, no one taught him how to perform, and he still exceeded expectations. But the organisation today is very different from the company Ben joined. Making decisions in the new company’s environment has become much more complex, and it’s more difficult for newcomers to understand the proper decision-making process.
In a recent interview on the 20VC podcast, Spotify CEO and founder Daniel Ek shares an interesting approach to the delegation of decision making. According to Ek, there are two components for a successful delegation process: 1/ a culture of transparency and 2/ educating the organisation on the decision making process.
If you’re moving more and more of your decisions to the edges, having the edges know as much as possible about all of the things that are going on will make them be able to make much better decisions than if they’re scrambling to figure out what’s important and what’s not.
The first component, a culture of transparency, is straightforward but challenging to maintain in a growing organisation. In a small team, where everyone is in the same open space, transparency is a given. But when the organisation grows, information flows less easily. Ben should ensure that every developer in his team has access to the same information as him, ideally in written form, to always go back to the source when in doubt.
While having access to information is necessary to delegate decision making, it’s not sufficient. Two people with the same level of information can make different decisions. That’s why, as shared by Daniel Ek, managers should spend time educating their team on decision making.
You have to spend a lot of time educating the organisation even before you get to a point where you can delegate things to them. And that’s educating about how decisions get made, what a good decision-making process looks like, what a bad decision-making process looks like.
To educate his team on decision making at DTIK (and to be more accurate, at DTIK right now), Ben should:
1/ Organise decision making training sessions where Ben will leverage internal use cases, and their outcomes, to detail the related decision-making processes. Like every training program, these sessions should have a set duration and an expected result for the team members (in terms of skills and knowledge learnt).
2/ Do post mortems at the end of each project, with the whole team, to help individual team members to understand where they failed. As Daniel Ek puts it: “Rather than looking at outputs, which a lot of people end up doing, like if something went wrong or didn’t go wrong, it’s way better to think about the input and the process of how that person made that decision, and then do post mortems if the process screwed up, rather than if the outcome is screwed up.”
3/ Have team-wide (or even company-wide) Open Project Reviews like Twilio Chief Product Officer Chee Chew organises to help everyone in the company learn his process. As Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson explains in his book Ask Your Developer, “every time Chee meets with a team to discuss a project, anyone is welcome to observe. [...] A side benefit is that OPR meetings become a kind of classroom. [..] These meetings can be tough, but that’s how people learn. Constructive criticism isn’t about tearing people down; it’s about helping them get better. It’s actually a form of respect. And it’s how people learn.”
These actions make sense when managers are self-aware of their decision-making process. Decisions motivated by experience (“I’ve done it before”), gut feeling (“It makes sense this way”) or, worst, hierarchy (“Do it and stop nagging”) cannot be taught to team members. Educating an organisation on decision making forces leaders to self-awareness and transparency, even on their own bad decisions.
To go further
🎧 Spotify Founder Daniel Ek on Optimising Decision-Making, Structuring Effective Learning Processes - 20VC
📖 Ask Your Developer: How to Harness the Power of Software Developers and Win in the 21st Century - Jeff Lawson
📝 This Matrix Helps Growing Teams Make Great Decisions - First Round Review
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