Leadership & Effective Decision Making on High Performance Teams

Leadership & Effective Decision Making on High Performance Teams

rock paper scissors

Trust, Vision and Ownership

In a previous post, I identified "3 Necessary Conditions for 'Going Agile'": Trust, ownership and vision. There, I used up my quota of blog space by focusing on trust and its impact on a high-performance team.

Here, I will continue that voyage by exploring ownership.

High Performance Defined

To get started, here’s a definition of a high-performance team from Wikipedia:

A high-performance team (HPT) can be defined as a group of people with specific roles and complementary talents and skills, aligned with and committed to a common purpose, who consistently show high levels of collaboration and innovation, that produce superior results. 

Common characteristics of HPTs include:

  • Participative leadership
  • Open and clear communication
  • Clear goals, values and principles
  • Mutual trust
  • Managed conflict
  • Flexibly defined roles and responsibilities
  • Coordinative relationship
  • Positive atmosphere
  • Continuous improvement

Nice, right? Who wouldn’t want to have more of that in their organization?

Delegation and Decision Making

With the characteristics described above, ownership of and attention to results is distributed as equally as possible. To accomplish this, decision making is taken up by various team members so that “the call” is no longer the domain of any single individual, especially not “the boss,” because command and control is simply too slow.

Distribution of decision making, aka delegation, is a great deal more than “Either you do it or I do it.” To avoid that mindset, I coach my teams to experiment with a matrix that provides four types of delegation:

  • Type 1: Decisions that only the leader can make/take - Type 1 can be made with or without consultation/discussion/buy-in with/from the team, though consultation is of course preferred.
  • Type 2: Decisions that individuals/the team can and should make/take themselves, but need to first run by a leader - In the event of a “tie” or a disagreement on how to proceed, the individual/team calls it. If the individual/team is not willing to take accountability, then it reverts back to a Type 1; there is no “Type 1.5.”
  • Type 3: Decisions that individuals/the team can make/take themselves, and inform the leader of after the fact – These decisions can be made either “contemporaneously” or “routinely.”
  • Type 4: Decisions that individuals and team can make/take themselves. In other words, the “Just do it” method.

Technically, there’s a fifth type as well:

  • Type 5: Wait until you are told what to do by the leader.

We don’t want Type 5 to be an option. Why? For a boatload of reasons, including these: No one person can know as much as a talented team, and being told what to do demotivates talented individuals and removes accountability.

Where is the Team Today?

To begin the distribution journey, start by developing a picture of your team’s present conditions. Grab the team and the leader, a pad of post-its and some pens. Crowd source a divergent list of all the decisions that need to be made over the course of the coming month. Have an unfiltered brain dump and fill the white board.

Next, affinity map the individual decisions to converge on topics and themes. Using those groups, build a matrix, placing topics/themes/details in rows and each of the four delegation levels in columns.

Then, like planning poker, have each team member pick a number from 1-4 to indicate what type of decision they think should be applied to the topic at hand today. The range of votes may or may not surprise the participants.

Then, discuss the results and see if both the team and the leader can agree on “where things are.”

Newly formed teams typically start off heavily skewed with lots of Type 1’s, and maybe a few 2, 3, or 4’s, while more experienced teams tend to have a more even distribution of all types.

Envision the Future

Once both the team and leader have a picture of where they are today, rinse and repeat the poker rounds for where folks want to be in the not-too-distant future, like the next sprint or the end of the next quarter.

As a team matures and becomes more gelled and performant (retrospectives help on this path), things should move as far to the right of the matrix as possible. Loads of type 4’s, 3’s, a few 2’s and almost zero 1’s is ideal.

Why? Because moving decision-making deep into the team and away from “the boss” reduces bottlenecks and wait times, reduces waste and multiplies by orders of magnitude the speed at which a team can move, experiment and learn.

Put a date on the calendar to do this exercise again, perhaps in three months. A team and its leaders should be careful not to build the future state matrix once and then never revisit it out of a misplaced need for consistency or a fear of stretching out of their comfort zone. Instead, remember to regularly inspect and adapt. 

Group Decision-Making Models

As decisions move into the realm of the team, a common issue that comes up is how exactly they should go about making them without resorting to asking the leader: “What should we do about this?” (by the way, if you are a team leader and you hear that question too often, try simply answering with: “What would you do if you were me?” More on this approach here.)

There are many models that can help a team choose options when it comes to team decision types 2, 3, and 4 (consult first, inform after or JFDI, respectively). None of these models are perfect, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses:

  • Consensus – A collaborative approach. Typically requires that the majority approves, but also that the minority agrees to go along. In other words, if the minority opposes the idea, consensus requires that it be modified to remove objectionable features (see: Fist to Five). Since everyone gets a voice, consensus is both useful and appealing, although it is also potentially dangerous. It can quickly devolve into a battle for who is willing to argue their point the longest, or a watered-down compromise.
  • Advice – A simple form of decision making where any individual can make the call. But, before doing so, they must seek advice from all affected parties as well as those with expertise on the matter. The individual, however, is under no obligation to integrate every piece of advice they receive.
  • Random – The group leaves the choice to chance. Put the options in a hat and pull out the winner, roll the dice or flip a coin.
  • Unanimity (or “12 angry peers”) – The group discusses the issue until an agreement is reached by all those involved in the situation.
  • I Can Live with It – Anyone might have well-reasoned objections to a given decision. However, they agree to work toward the goals of the decision anyway.
  • Solidarity – Unwavering commitment wherein individual will is suppressed for “the good of the group.”
  • Rock Paper Scissors – See “Random.” :)


Different decisions call for different decision making models and types of delegation. Some teams may not be ready for all of the types covered above, and not all types are the best fit for any given team.

For best results, try to come to an agreement on the following:

  • (Type 1, 2, 3 or 4, or any other nomenclature that fits your culture)
  • Which one will be used for the decision at hand today
  • Which one the team wants to use tomorrow

See what works, see what doesn’t and continuously improve. Not only will the team experience a significant increase in productivity, but there will be a greater degree of trust and innovation as well. Once again, that is the promise of truly embracing agile.


Andy Cleff is an experienced and pragmatic agile practitioner. He take teams beyond “getting agile” to “embracing agile” via mentoring, coaching and facilitation.

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