I was coaching a new team lead at a startup yesterday, and he brought up a challenge I think probably affects many teams: how do you deal with being blocked waiting for a decision about day-to-day work from the person you report to?
This happens because nobody likes being negatively surprised. Especially in a startup that is going through many growing pains, there are many fears, not the least of which is the fear of losing control.
(Control itself is an illusion, but that’s a separate topic.)
These managers want to be in the loop and know what’s going on. What they’re afraid of is things going sideways and getting blindsided, when they could’ve prevented it somehow.
This is a reasonable concern. Senior leaders in any org have a different perspective than other people, because they are seeing everything. They can often spot problems from their perspective that someone directly involved with the work can’t. These are often integration problems or long-range implications that aren’t obvious in the moment.
Usually, these people don’t have all the information needed anyway and are ultimately going to push the decision back to the people closest to the work involved.
They just want to be in the loop, know what’s happening, and be able to contribute thinking and guidance if they see something that isn’t working or if they have a different perspective from their vantage point.
The problem is that such well-intentioned practices lead to a bad place: bottleneck. And more and more people are waiting on the management for decisions. It’s a downward spiral, and it’s usually a bad sign of how management is doing its job. There are a lot of reasons that it’s good to push decision-making authority as close as possible to the frontline work, and speed is just one of them.
So, can we have both? Can we keep senior leadership informed and benefit from their perspective, and also not get stuck waiting around for an answer from them?
The trick is to use what I call the “expiring veto email.”
When you send that email where you are usually asking for a decision, make a slight tweak: explicitly state when you need an answer by, and what you’ll move forward with if you don’t hear otherwise. Something like:
To meet our next deliverable, we need to start development on this on Wednesday. Please let me know if you have any input / changes by Wednesday at 10am. If I don’t hear otherwise, my plan is to make this top priority for our next sprint and kick off the development Wednesday afternoon at the team meeting.
It’s deceptively simple. Let’s look at what this simple addition does:
- keeps them in the loop, so they know what’s going on and going to happen if they can’t get to it
- gives them veto power if they disagree with your plan or see something different that they think you aren’t accounting for
- removes them as a bottleneck — things keep moving if you don’t hear back from them
- promotes a culture of leadership and thinking at all levels
I predict they will be excited and grateful for the initiative you are showing. It makes their life simpler, which every busy manager I know will appreciate. They know what will happen (even if they don’t have time to respond) but can still veto or redirect if they need to.
One key caveat to the above tactic is that it should only be used for a day-to-day decision. This is what Amazon refers to as a Type 2 decision 1: it is reversible, and as such calls for a lighter weight decision-making process.
Most things are reversible and not a Type 1, “future of the company” decision. They’re like walking through a door: you can always turn around and walk back. Act accordingly.
So if you or your team are stuck trying waiting for answers on Type 2 decisions, try the expiring veto email and watch things start moving faster. I predict everyone will be happier for it.
This was also covered nicely by Steli Efti in “The Unbottleneck Hack.”
- This is from Jeff Bezos’ fantastic 2016 letter to Amazon shareholders.