How to Create a Culture of Fast Decisions and Decentralized Ownership
Fast decisions and experimentation are directly linked
I’ve worked in product teams, growth teams, and marketing teams. I’ve worked as an IC (individual contributor), a manager, and a manager of managers in every kind of setup, from public companies to scaleups, and now a Pre-Seed startup.
In every role and every company, decision-making was a recurring topic of discussion. It was hard to find consensus on a decision-making framework that met the needs of every project and team. More importantly, it was hard to measure the results of our decision-making – the same question came up over and over again: were we making the best decisions for each project?
Both of the above are important but in my experience, too much focus on these topics can lead managers to overlook other more important areas:
- how fast are we collectively making decisions
- are we learning fast enough?
I’m a firm believer that speed is the ultimate factor in determining who wins a market. I’ve seen firsthand how, with all things being equal, the fastest company wins. Of course, doing things with speed should never affect quality. Rushed projects lead to mistakes. I’ve seen this a lot, where teams haven’t spent enough time on the creation side of work. From customer emails that lack personalization to pricing schemas that are impossible to explain, the results always come back to hurt a business. This is not surprising. After the mental drain of debating, discussing, and weighing out options, it can be very tempting to just get on with it.
We’re often good at experimenting and treating our products as a WIP but this mindset can be lost on the rest of the way we work. I’m a huge fan of the Reforge program and its training on how to operationalize an experimentation mindset, traditionally built for Growth teams but applicable for all. It has been a huge help in my quest to create an environment of fast, decentralized decisions. Because people need ownership. Leaders don’t have all the answers. And again speed wins.
We’re still experimenting with the number and the exact decision-making principles we’ll use at Ourspace, but in the spirit of sharing our WIP here are the 5 principles we’re testing today:
5 principles for faster decisions & learning
1) Triage decisions
Not all decisions are equal. Therefore the mental effort you give each one should not be equal, either.
My previous manager, Rodolphe Ardant, CEO and Founder of Spendesk, had a great way of thinking about this. He would always ask one question before giving his thoughts on an issue: ‘is this a one-way or two-way door decision.” In other words, is the decision reversible or irreversible?
We used this as a guide post to help scope out the appropriate time, research, and necessary stakeholders to include in each decision.
This simple yet powerful question reduces the stress for Type 1 decisions and makes it explicit that Type 2 decisions need additional stakeholders. If it was a type 2 decision, then I’d advocate for being explicit on who owns the decision with a preference for the DACI model. Just be sure you only have one approver— repeat: one approver.
Another effective framework we used at Intuit was the Cynefin Framework by Scholar David J. Snowden. I love this print-out illustration by the Dandy People for live sticky sessions. It helps align everyone upfront on which topics need input and, more importantly, those that don’t.
2) Strictly time-box dependencies
Parkinson's law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” With timeboxing, you put maximum limits on how much you will spend on a task.
Deadlines ultimately add pressure. But more than that, they’re a helpful tool way to maintain scope, encourage prioritization, and promote accountability to your colleagues.
Over the years, I’ve been a part of many team retrospectives (too many to count!) where we’ve wasted time spinning our wheels. The clearer the deadlines, the better teams perform.
At Ourspace we run weekly sprints across the company and put pressing decisions at the top of our weekly. We find it’s a great way to highlight dependencies and to be explicit if anyone needs to be consulted in the process of deciding. However, my favorite is being clear when you don’t need anyone so people are comfortable moving fast and forward.
3) Establish a regular learning meeting
I’ve borrowed a routine from a previous manager, Jaleh Rezaei, current CEO of Mutinty and former Head of Marketing at Gusto, by establishing a learning meeting on the marketing team at Spendesk and now Ourspace.
This meeting is a great way to share qualitative learnings that have not been not explicitly shared. It also encourages teams to set up their work as a series of experiments.
Here’s a recent learning we had at Ourspace when working on onboarding. We’re so grateful we started with paper prototypes as our original assumptions on how we should build the first-use experience played out differently when in live demos versus what we collected in our customer feedback conversations.
4) Make tradeoffs and decisions explicit
For irreversible decisions and large cross-team projects, it’s important to create space where different perspectives and concerns can be collected. This helps create alignment and clarity during execution.
I’m a subscriber of the disagree and commit principle but for this to be effective you need to actually confront disagreements and visualize the tradeoffs. It doesn’t have to be complicated but it does need to be explicit – that way, everyone has the same context and is aware of what the decision(s) are. Here’s a classic Benefits, Costs, and Mitigations template I’ve seen used by almost every team I’ve been on.
Again, this exercise can (and should be) be time-boxed, but I’ve seen the best results when there is pre-work and then a live discussion that’s moderated by a facilitator who keeps the discussion on track.
Bonus! Swap hats— To help increase empathy and alignment, I encourage my teams to do the exercise with multiple hats on.
As well as the department stakeholder hat, they wear the customer hat and the hats of their peers across other teams, too. This was extremely effective during a pricing change at Spendesk. Initially, there was tension between the technical, sales, and marketing teams who each had a different recommendation based on their team lens. Once we came at it from the customers’ perspective, we found alignment quickly.
5) Balance approval power
Although I’m a huge proponent of OKRs and a centralized company strategy, it’s critical to decentralize and proportionately distribute decision-making as much as possible.
The positive impact this can have on your company culture will be huge. It helps create a more engaged workforce, increases innovation, and again increases the speed of decisions and execution.
One way that I keep a pulse on my team and keep my fellow peers in check is by calculating the percentage of “Approval Power” people have. This ensures a healthy balance of ownership and negates the poor practice of putting senior leadership (who are often not the experts) as the de facto approver on all decisions. Just because a manager or leader has authority and responsibility for the ultimate objectives, it doesn’t mean they have the right expertise to make a call on every project.
In my experience, an equitable balance of accountability falls around having a single approver with 2-3 approval roles max on quarterly OKRs. I also find that calculating or at least putting limits on approval power is a good way to spot any biases that naturally creep up as a manager when you give decision power to a few equates to losing engagement with many.
Building a culture of collaborative accountability takes time and a conscious effort. No matter the team size, it’s important to be disciplined to triage and time-box decisions, establish an experimental mindset, make decisions explicit, and decentralize decision-making power.
The five points I’ve laid out above won’t cover all issues you’re likely to face – no framework can provide this – but I hope they help you and your team move faster. Allez! 🏃♀️