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Bottleneck Culture

It's not enough to delegate work. If you can't bring yourself to delegate responsibility, everything will get clogged up.

Hierarchy constipates the economy.

I’ve been reading a lot recently about decision-making, including Chip and Dan Heath’s Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work and Tom Davenport and Brook Manville’s Judgment Calls: Twelve Stories of Big Decisions and the Teams That Got Them Right. (Both excellent, by the way.) These and similar books discuss how to make better decisions. They talk less about the imperative to get decisions made by getting them the hell off your desk.

Every leader recognizes the importance of delegation. But you cannot delegate work without delegating responsibility--and the defining mechanism of responsibility is the decision. Failure to (I can’t believe I’m going to use this word, but here goes) empower people to say yes or no not only slows work to a crawl in your organization, but also potentially affects the performance and even the reputations of individuals at every organization with which you do business.

If every decision lands on your desk, then your company is like a city with one street, one traffic light, and no byways or exits. Slowly, as your time permits, a car or two passes through. But most of them just sit there, idling in frustration, their emissions (which are bad feelings in this metaphor, from which I am getting impressive mileage) poisoning the air.

It's bad enough that your subordinate can’t act until you give him an answer. But consider the people who can’t act until they receive an answer from your subordinate. And the other people farther down the line who can’t act until they receive an answer from those people who are waiting to hear from your subordinate.

Let’s say your company is weighing whether to move into a new office or expand in your current building. The general manager has been trying to pin you down on this for six months. Every week he receives several calls or emails from your building’s facilities director and a real estate agent whom the GM consulted about alternative spaces. The facilities director, meanwhile, is getting calls from her regular contractor, who will need to knock down some walls and perform other construction work if you decide to stick where you are. The contractor wants to keep the facilities director happy--she’s a great customer--so he’s been putting off other customers until she commits to a schedule. Further down the chain of inaction, employees handling building projects for those put-off customers can produce no firm answers about the contractor’s availability for their own finger-drumming bosses. Meanwhile, the real estate agent wonders whether she should keep looking for new sites or she’s just wasting her time. The GM can’t give her any guidance (we need more conference rooms or a bigger parking lot) because you haven’t given him feedback on the spaces you’ve had time to inspect.

I could extend this string of dependencies out further, in a kind of there-was-an-old-lady-who-swallowed-a-fly progression. The problem isn’t just that--as my husband says when I stand in front of a cashier trying to dredge exact change out of my purse--the wheels of commerce have ground to a halt. It’s also that bad feelings are created at every level. Every time a new message comes in--“Can we schedule this?” “Is it going to happen?” “What are the next steps?”--the person applied to must respond, in essence, “I don’t know. I am powerless. I cannot make that decision. I cannot even get my boss to make that decision. I know I am making your life harder. I cannot help it. Sorry, sorry, sorry.” And that humiliating response travels down the line.

At some point, the people with no answers begin to feel harassed or beaten down by the people who need answers, and they stop responding altogether. Bridges burn. Reputations are tarnished.

How to avoid all this? Carve out a few categories of decisions you want to be consulted about and delegate--without threat of second-guessing--the rest. The matters on which you require input should not be the kind that power day-to-day operations. Remember that behind every employee tapping her toes outside your door, there may be two or three or four toe-tappers waiting. Their ability to get things done, to maintain reputations as people who get things done, and in some cases to earn a living, depend on you.

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Last updated: May 14, 2013

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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