Making decisions without asking your boss

Rocks and thin ice in the shoreline.

At work, we aim to have a self-managed organization instead of a hierarchical one.1 One of the challenges is that how decisions should be made. In a hierarchical organization you could ask your boss, but what if your boss does not want to make every decision? You could seek consensus, but what if you can’t reach a consensus and a decision nevertheless has to be made?

A practical solution is to use the advice process. Anyone can make a decision after seeking advice from:

  1. Everyone who will be meaningfully affected by the decision, and
  2. Everyone who has expertise in the matter.

As long as everyone is able to trust the process2, this neatly solves the problem of consensus.

For example, we were having problems with Flowdock (an enterprise chat service): the mobile clients were constantly broken and the search wasn’t great. It quickly became apparent that we wouldn’t reach a consensus about what we should do: some people thought we should move to Slack, others (me included) preferred Zulip, and some thought that continuing with Flowdock was the best option despite its flaws.

A person announced that they’d be making a decision about the course of action in two weeks. Since the chat is our most important communication tool, they announced it to everyone in the company and solicited advice. People made arguments about communication styles and social, technical and monetary aspects of each solution. Once the deadline passed, the decision maker announced the solution: we’d be moving to Slack as it had a bunch of practical advantages and was also the most popular solution.

Even though my favorite solution didn’t get picked, I felt like this was a good way to make the decision: everyone affected had a say and it was relatively efficient, timeboxed process that was guaranteed to produce a decision.

  1. You do not have to send me a link to Tyranny of Structulessness. It’s a great essay and I have read it and I still believe that you can improve upon strictly hierarchical organizations. Look, I don’t send a link to Moral Mazes or to The Gervais Principle every time I hear somebody say that they work in a hierarchical organization. ↩︎

  2. You have to trust the decision maker. I’m not sure if trusting the advice-givers is 100% necessary. It does help, of course. ↩︎

Comments or questions? Send me an e-mail.