This is the fourth in a suite of five articles exploring the art of delegating. This one focuses on getting the criteria and guidelines right in bounded authority. Too tight is controlling. Too loose is abrogating responsibility. The middle Goldilocks just right approach is best to enable and empower others’ own choices. 

Delegation Framework

The art of delegating has four components: direction, resources, bounded authority and accountability.

  1. DIRECTION/intent – what, why and interdependencies
  2. RESOURCES (financial, information, operations/technical, people, time) – specific
  3. AUTHORITY to make tactical decisions within strategic boundaries/guidelines – balanced
  4. ACCOUNTABILITY and consequences of success and failure – owned

Bounded Authority Must Be Balanced

Digging into bounded authority, the core premise is that the right level of boundaries and guidelines empowers those to whom you’ve delegated authority to make different choices than you would have made with you being confident that their choices will help achieve your shared objectives in a different way than you had imagined.

How do you know what boundaries around authority are neither too hot nor too cold, too specific nor too general?

It’s all about context.

Bounded authority is not the silver bullet that makes any delegation right on its own. It needs to flow from and fit with the other dimensions – direction, resources and accountability.

Direction – The right boundaries flow from your direction. They echo or amplify what you’re delegating and why it matters. A simple hack is to use the boundaries to flesh out the objectives, desired results, and intent – what will happen next.

Resources – The right boundaries are enabled by resources. The resources required for someone to expand a business into the next town are different than the resources required to expand into a different continent. Make sure your boundaries are aligned with the resources.

Accountability – Similarly, accountability and authority must match. You can only ever hold someone accountable for things they can make happen. Thus, the right boundaries must be aligned with the accountabilities.

Bounded Authority in Hiring Decision

For example, imagine you’ve agreed to let your direct report hire an additional person and delegated the hiring decision to them.

If you give them too narrow a set of criteria/boundaries/guidelines or let them hire whomever they want subject to your approval, you have not really delegated anything. The problem with this is that you have no leverage. If you’re making all the decisions, you don’t need other leaders on your team. You just need advisors and executors.

Even worse would be having a narrow set of criteria that you expect people to understand without you sharing them because “they should know.” Shame on you. If you’ve got criteria, share them. If you expect them to make the same decision you would have made, make the decision yourself. It’s not a test. You’re not trying to make them prove themselves. You’re trying to inspire, enable and empower them. On the other hand, sometimes all you want is compliance. Sometimes that’s enough.

If you give your direct report no criteria, boundaries or guidelines, anything can happen and you have abrogated your leadership position. You deserve whatever happens.

The art is in giving your direct report strategic boundaries and guidelines for the hire that are narrow enough to ensure the hire can contribute what you need them to contribute and broad enough to enable your direct report to build their own team. If you’re going to interview candidates, make sure you’re giving your direct report input into their decision and not approving their recommendation.

Policy, Guideline, Principle

Another way to think about this is that bounded authority should come in the form of guidelines, not as rigid as policies, but more prescriptive than principles.

Don’t read this wrong, all the guidelines or boundaries must fit well within overall policies. And all the guidelines or boundaries must build on underlying principles.

The right balance, the Goldilocks way, gives people the freedom to make their own choices within a framework.

The right balance of that framework is loose enough to allow them to do things their way and tight enough for you to be able to support any choice they make.

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