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Delegation Requires Boundaries

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The origin of the word management is from Italian, meaning “taking care of horses”.

All I know about horses is what I picked up from fantasy literature. I know they often have saddles, bridles, spurs, bits, shoes (not Italian), and long beautiful manes that always blow the right way when warriors need to stab an enemy to death. The ones who just go and sit on a wild horse and yell “yee-haw!” are usually dead before page 50.

The caretaking of horses includes giving direction and setting boundaries. Quite often, when managers delegate work to teams they don’t give them clear boundaries of authority. By trial and error teams need to find out what they can and cannot do, usually incurring some emotional damage along the way. This was described by Donald Reinertsen as the “discovery of invisible electric fences” [Reinertsen, Managing the Design Factory p.107]. Repeatedly running into an electric fence is not only a waste of time and resources, but it also kills motivation, and it ruins the coat of the horse. With no idea of what the invisible boundaries are around it, the horse will prefer to stand still and just eat some biscuits.

Reinertsen suggests creating a list of key decision areas to address this problem. The list can include things like “Working hours”, “Key technologies”, “Product design”, and “Team membership”. A manager should make it perfectly clear what the team’s authority level is for each key decision area in this list. When the horse can actually see the fence, there will be less fear and pain. And the farther away the fence, the more the horse will enjoy its territory.

It also works the other way around, because of the reflexive relationship of responsibility and accountability. A team usually delegates work to management, such as “Rewards and remuneration”, “Business partnerships”, “Market strategy”, and “Parking space”. The horse is not required to simply accept any kind of boundaries, constraints, and abuse.

Nature gave the horse strong teeth and hind legs for a reason.

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