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Delegation Board – The True Story

So you’d like to increase self-organization and autonomy in your team, but have no idea where to start? Thanks to Jurgen Appelo’s tool called Delegation Board you can do it even today. If you’re curious how it has worked for me and my colleagues, what we’ve learned and how we’ve modified it, read on.

It’s no news that in order to enable the emergence of self-organization you need certain conditions (more and more). One of them is setting a boundary. In case of teams those boundaries may take various forms:

  • physical (room, office etc.)
  • attractor (leadership)
  • policy (rules)

In this article I’d like to focus on the last one – setting the policies right.

Is setting boundaries important?

First, let’s think for a while, what would happen if not all policies were defined or communicated. There are two ways one could go:

  1. Assume that nothing is under the person’s control and thus stay passive or go to the decision maker (usually someone above the person in the hierarchy) whenever the decision is to be made.
  2. Assume that everything is under the person’s control and thus often cross the invisible barrier and generate misunderstanding and tension.

Personally I prefer the second way, because “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission,” as Grace Hopper once said.

What would happen if boundaries were clearly defined? By defining an area of freedom you get rid of the problems above, or at least you greatly minimize the risk of their occurrence. You can always break the rules and then beg for forgiveness, but most importantly you eliminate the risk of decision paralysis. Clear policies empower people (assuming that there’s anything left for them to decide) and improve self-organization.

Delegation Board to the rescue

Delegation Board
(c) Jurgen Appelo
Delegation Board is a tool created by Jurgen Appelo. It was first described in his book, Management 3.0, which I highly recommend (and all of his other works). The idea is quite simple. You draw a matrix and put decision areas in rows and levels of delegation in columns. It’s up to you what you will have in rows. This is specific to your environment and duties. What should be in columns is defined by Jurgen, but it’s not sacred – if you need something else, change it as we did (if you keep reading you’ll find out what the changes were). This defines, from the point of the decision maker, what level of delegation she wants to have.

On the left hand side is Tell (“I make a decision and inform you about it”), in the middle there’s Agree (“Let’s make the decision together”) and on the right there’s Delegate (“You make a decision and you don’t even have to tell me about it”). There are other levels between those, so it’s not black and white – sometimes you want to make a decision but with the input of others, or you just want to be a part of decision making process as an advisor, but not decision maker. All of it is on the board. If you want to know more, please visit this site.

Our way

Delegation Board example
One of our Delegation Boards
Our process was simple – firstly, we tried to determine the actual level of delegation for each of the key decision areas. We haven’t used the Delegation Poker game also suggested by Jurgen. We simply talked about how it is right now. Then our manager confirmed it or moved it left or right. After all it is up to him to define those boundaries, isn’t it?

It’s interesting how we treated the levels of delegation. Jurgen says that the scale is symmetrical, yet the descriptions of levels aren’t. So we ended up with something between original set and those proposed by Fun Retrospectives (A and B represents teams or individuals):

  1. Don’t Tell – A makes a decision and… That’s it.
  2. Tell – A makes a decision and communicates it to B.
  3. Sell – A makes a decision and convinces B it is right.
  4. Consult – A has a decision ready but shapes it based on B’s input.
  5. Agree – Decisions are made with equal authority between A and B.
  6. Advise – B prepares a decision with input from A before finalizing it.
  7. Inquire – B makes a decision and seeks buy-in from A.
  8. Delegate but Inform – A passes off a decision to B without influencing it, B communicates the decision to A.
  9. Delegate – A passes off a decision to B without influencing it and doesn’t even care about the decision.

Wow, 9 levels. That’s a lot, but we needed that. At least in case of the team of managers that I am a part of. Level 0 was used in one case – decision about amounts of raises. The decision whether to give the raise or not is consulted, but the amount is kind of secret and only our Head knows exactly what it is. Level 7 was used for instance in case of holidays – we may decide by ourselves, but we have to inform our Head that we plan to take a leave.

How did it work out?

We tried to do this exercise in a few teams with good results. No team said it was a waste of time. It’s a good start! Each team gained from it by having a debate about who decides about what. In some teams there were no big surprises, in others some people were taken aback, like “I didn’t know that I can decide myself to travel to our HQ!” or “I thought that process is managed by our manager, not us.”

For me as a team member it was helpful to clarify some decision areas, as they were not well defined before. As a manager I was able to communicate my expectations. My Team Leaders were surprised by the level of trust I was throwing on them. I was striving to Delegate wherever I could.

One team has done this exercise with the Product Owner. Lots of misunderstandings popped out during the meeting, which was a good thing, because now they could be addressed. The team and PO started to work on those for the sake of a better future.

Delegation Board was also implemented inside development teams. Interesting observation is worth noting here. In our company, the Team Leader is a part of a team – she’s a Team Member with line management responsibilities. It’s important to understand one thing – when Team Leader is delegating something to the team, this means that the Team Leader, as a part of a team, may be involved in process of decision making. For instance, if a Team Leader delegates technical decisions to the team it means she can (but doesn’t have to) take part in talking about them. In case of other levels, the person in this role must be involved in some way.


In conclusion – I would recommend the approach to anyone who wants to set the boundaries of self-organization. Without these limits, people do not know what they can and can’t do. As a result, we may be disappointed to find that some things do not happen by themselves, or someone crosses an invisible boundary that was not clearly set or communicated. It is also a good tool for facilitation – it sparks really interesting discussions!

It’s a good idea to hang a Delegation Board on a wall and work on shifting responsibility to the right – towards Delegation. This builds autonomy and requires trust. Values that, I believe, are good to live by.

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