Making Decisions at the Right Level of the Organization
We’ve all heard the coin toss joke “Heads, I win; tails, you lose.” Corny, but it’s good for a laugh. However, in a professional setting with real issues on the table, it’s no laughing matter.
Let’s say it’s Friday afternoon at 4:30. There’s a big demo scheduled Monday for a customer flying in from out of state, and one of several requested features isn’t working. Weekend overtime to rework the database and fix the problem will cost two thousand dollars. You try to call your boss for permission, but her voicemail says she is gone for the weekend and unavailable by cell.
In scenario one, you decide to authorize overtime.
The presentation goes well. But later, your boss reads you the riot act: “You don’t have the authority to approve overtime. If I had known about this, we would have omitted that feature and done the demo anyway.”
In scenario two, when you’re unable to reach your boss, you decide to omit the feature.
The presentation goes fine, with a minor hitch when you explain that the database requires reconfiguration to support the desired feature and will be ready later this week. Later, your boss reads you the riot act: “You should have authorized overtime to fix this over the weekend!”
Heads, I win; tails, you lose.
These scenarios aren’t meant to imply your boss is a jerk. They suggest that priorities and your authority are not clear. In the absence of clear boundaries and jurisdictions, it’s human nature to second-guess the downside of decisions.
How much money can you spend today for legitimate project needs in case of a minor emergency like the one described above and still expect your boss’s complete and unquestioning support?
If you don’t know, you may lose every coin toss.
How can you find out? Short answer: Ask. Longer answer: Have a conversation with your sponsor about priorities and authority.
Once priorities have been determined, here are questions to guide a conversation about authority:
- What authority are you delegating to me, and which decisions would you like me to consult with you about?
- How much money or what human resources can I commit without consulting you?
- How much discretion do I have regarding project scope?
- What authority do I have to modify the schedule or slip milestones?
- If I can’t reach you regarding a time-sensitive matter that you wanted to decide, what would you like me to do? Is there someone else I should contact?
- In case of emergency, if I can’t contact you or your designated representative, what would you like me to do?
- What do you consider an “emergency”?
Start this conversation before emergencies arise. As your project progresses, revisit it to refine your understanding. You will still guess wrong occasionally, but you will better support your sponsor—and win a lot more coin tosses—if you both agree on the boundaries of your authority.