One of the great Catch-22s of business management is the issue of What, How and When to delegate. On the one hand there are the managers who will often sigh they can’t delegate a task because “it’s too essential the objectives are met,” and on the other are their staff crying out they just can’t get things done because they are being micromanaged. Who is right and what to do?
As our brains are hardwired for visual information, a complex issue like this often benefits from being visualised. And this is exactly what Management 3.0 thinker Jurgen Appelo (2016) did in his book Managing for Happiness. The ideas Appelo came up with are the Delegation Board and the game of Delegation Poker.
The Delegation Board, sometimes referred to as an Empowerment Board, is an easy to implement tool to create openness and transparency of expectations between managers and their teams. Basically, it’s either a physical board or a spreadsheet that vertically lists the key decision points of a project that a manager might (or might not) delegate to his or her team. Horizontally, the board is divided into a number of columns, each of which represents a level of delegation. In his book, Appelo identifies seven levels of delegation: Tell, Sell, Consult, Agree, Advise, Inquire and Delegate. In the header video of this post, Jurgen Appelo explains his take on these different levels of delegation (or you can scroll down to the cards below to read more about them).
Ideally, managers and their teams would come together at the beginning of a new project to identify the key decision areas that will be involved in the successful completion of the task. Once the decision points have been identified, the next step is to decide the level of delegation for each of these points. Although there are no right or wrong answers to this, the question is: How do you decide the appropriate level of delegation? This is where Appelo’s game of Delegation Poker comes in.
Playing Delegation Poker
In Appelo’s version of delegation poker, the game is played with teams of 3-7 members all of whom hold a set of seven cards, each card representing a specific level of delegation. At the start of a round, the players are presented with a case to discuss. An example given by Appelo is:
“You wish to involve your team in the recruitment of new staff. What level of delegation would you give them for hiring decisions concerning various job candidates?”
Each player will then privately choose the card which best reflects how far they would delegate the decision process if they were the manager. Next, at the count of three, all players simultaneously reveal their cards. The choices made will (and should) probably be different, so the next step is to have those with the highest and lowest levels of delegation motivate their choices. This should lead to a discussion during which the group will come to a consensus about the most appropriate level of delegation.
Of course, the intention of this game is not to sideline the managers, they will still ultimately decide on the levels of delegation they feel are appropriate. However, playing this game with the team might reveal misconceptions and hidden assumptions from both the perspective of the manager and the team members. It will create transparency and, therefore, lead to better end results.
How we play the hand we’re dealt
At the Wu-Wei Research Institute, we use Appelo’s delegation board and the poker game as a tool for discussion in our workshops. (Our own team is small enough to be almost exclusively managed at Level 4 “Agree”)
At a typical workshop, I would group the participants into small teams (i.e. 5 +/- 2) and present them with a fictional project like a hiring decision or an event to plan. The teams will then decide on some key decision areas regarding the project at hand. Once all the teams have come to a consensus, they’ll play delegation poker.
There are special Delegation Poker card sets available to play this game, but we’ve opted for regular playing cards to maintain the ‘feel’ of a poker game in gamble-crazed Southeast Asia. Below some of the cards we use for our game (tap or hover over a card to see what it represents):
Level 1 "Tell"
You make the decision.
You might explain your motivation to others but discussion is neither desired nor assumed.
Level 5 "Advise"
You share your ideas.
You will offer your opinions to your team and hope they’ll listen to your wise words. But in the end the team decides, NOT you.
Level 2 "Sell"
You make the decision.
But then you try to convince your team that you made the right choice, and you help them feel more involved.
Level 6 "Inquire"
You sit back and wait.
You first leave it to your team to decide but, once they’ve come to a consensus, you ask them to convince you of the wisdom of their decision.
Level 3 "Consult"
You ask your team.
And you will take their ideas into consideration before making a decision that respects their opinions.
Level 7 "Delegate"
You do nothing!
You leave the entire decision making process to your team and you don’t even want to be bothered with the details, you just see the results.
Level 4 "Agree"
You discuss with your team.
You enter into a discussion with everybody involved and, as a group, you reach consensus about the decision.
Level 8 "Wildcard"
If levels 1-7 don’t seem appropriate for a certain decision, the wildcard can be played to suggest an alternative solution.
An addition I’ve made to Appelo’s delegation poker is the inclusion of the Queen as a Level 8 Wildcard. My idea behind this wildcard is that some decisions simply don’t fit neatly into any of the seven levels of delegation identified by Appelo, but require an alternative level of delegation. Another reason is that I’d like to encourage creative thinking amongst the participants of our workshops.
As for the success of the tools, I find that they work best at workshops we run with a diverse group of attendees. If the participants all hold similar positions in their organisations, they tend to agree too quickly and discussions fall flat. With a mixed bag of participants, however, delegation poker often turns out to be an eye-opening experience (especially for senior staff members) and the discussions tend to be as diversified as the group.
One thing I haven’t yet been able to grow to the potential I think it has, is the Queen Wildcard. The card isn’t played very often as most players (again especially senior staff members) prefer to safely stay in the comfort zone of the seven epitomised levels of delegation. But well, it’s a work in progress and I’m sure that, over time, I can get attendees to play at higher stakes.
[T]here you are.
Appelo, J. (2016). Delegation Boards and Delegation Poker in Managing for happiness (pp. 59-76). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Appelo, J. (2011). How to Empower Teams in Management 3.0 (pp. 119-146). Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley, Pearson Education.
Roosmaalen, R. van. (2017). Doing It: Management 3.0 Experiences. (PDF) Retrieved 29 July 2017 from http://www.agilestrides.com
Appelo, J. (2017). Management 3.0 Employee Engagement Exercises. Retrieved 29 July 2017, from https://management30.com/
Appelo, J. (2015). How to Delegate Better with the 7 Delegation Levels. (video) Retrieved 28 July 2017, from Youtube: https://youtu.be/VZF-G7MCSG4