Decision Rights

Spinning. Wheels are spinning. We go around in circles. Progress is illusory. Just when we think we are “getting somewhere”, we realize we are right back where we started. Its frustrating. I bet you’ve been there. I bet you’ve experienced this feeling in many different ways.

I have heard it called many things: “Paralysis by analysis”, “Chasing our tail”, “Go fetch”, “The circular imperative” to name a few.

The symptom is that no matter how we try, we can’t convince “them” to sign up and move forward. The team won’t adopt the recommended pattern. The boss won’t sponsor the proposal. The customer won’t sign the contract.

One possible cause is that we haven’t made our case. We haven’t made the business plan. We haven’t demonstrated the benefit.

Or perhaps the problem is that the “them” we are trying to convince doesn’t have “decision rights” or doesn’t think they have decision rights over the action or idea we are trying to convince them to authorize. Maybe we are convincing the wrong person(s).

Maybe your boss doesn’t feel comfortable sponsoring your proposal, because it puts her at risk or at odds with her manager, but if her manager would sponsor it, she would be happy.

Maybe the team won’t adopt the new project templates, because they are not the only customer or audience of that template. Maybe you have to convince the the other teams that use the templates who will be impacted as the work passes from one team to another.

The root problem is that we may not know who has “decision rights” over any particular aspect of the work we are trying to accomplish. In fact, the harder you push, you may run into disagreements between leaders over who has decision rights. These are classically reflected as “turf battles” in organizational management as leaders strive to expand their influence by “claiming” decision rights.

Problems with decision rights:
1) Decision rights over “what” – are assigned separately from decision rights over “how” or “when”
2) Those who have decision rights – are not accountable for cost or schedule
3) Decision rights are distributed across a group with different agendas or goals.

One flavor of this game I have seen is that within the context of a project, is when responsibility for accomplishment is assigned and resources are allocated, but decision rights over how something is accomplished are either not clearly defined, or even distributed across a collection of people. It is especially difficult when decision rights over how are assigned outside of the management hierarchy of those responsible for accomplishment.

Sometimes getting decisions made becomes a bottleneck for the project. Whether this is caused by orthogonal incentives, overloaded decision makers, or too many cooks in the kitchen, is of little consequence.

Of course, project managers encounter this all the time. They are responsible for chasing and coordinating across doers and decision makers and ensuring that the work stays on schedule.

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