Heuristics have been called “fast and frugal” decision-making rules.  There are many types of decision-making heuristics, some notably better than others.  For instance, I am not a particular fan of the concept of satisficing, a term coined by Herbert Simon.  Simon won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1978, but I have always believed his theory of  satisficing short-changes the process decision makers actually employ.  Daniel Kahneman (another Nobel Prize winner) and his partner Ivan Tversky (who sadly passed away before he could be awarded the Nobel Prize) developed or discussed many other heuristics.  For a more complete discussion of these, I suggest you take a look at Kahneman’s outstanding book Thinking Fast and Slow.  Some of my graduate students have called this the best book they have ever read. 

I would modestly like to propose another heuristic I will call the delegation heuristic. Many of us have seen organizations grind to a halt because the decision maker was often overwhelmed with many small decisions or with subdividing  a major project into many smaller tasks.  A prime example of this is history is how Robert E. Lee controlled the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War. Lee made very little use of his staff, who jokingly referred to him as “the Tycoon”. Lee insisted on coordinating every aspect of a potential  engagement. This constant exertion wore Lee out and may have contributed to the final defeat of his army after years of combat. Contrast this with Union General U. S. Grant, who maintained a large military staff for the time and used them effectively.  Even while he campaigned with the Union Army of the Potomac, Grant left General Gordon Meade in command of this army while Grant concentrated on strategic issues.  In short, one of the reasons why Grant could effectively manage multiple armies was because he could delegate effectively and knew the rules of delegating.  He maintained final responsibility but he gave authority to his subordinates to issue orders and coordinate the campaign in detail. 

Delegating is perhaps the most fast and frugal of all heuristics. A leader understands heuristics conserves critical time and energy and brings more mental firepower to solving the problem at hand.  This type of leader will often delegate smaller less consequential decisions to staff members or subordinates.  In other words such a leader will make a decision by appointing someone else to make a decision. The decision is always made in the name of the leader, who may not even know sometimes the decision has been made. 

The decision heuristic can be executed in several different ways.  For instance, i would divide decisions I faced into the following categories: (a) delegate the decision entirely to someone else; (b) delegate the decision to someone else but provide the decision rule or decision methodology for the delegatee; (c ) delegate the decision but ask the person to inform me or discuss the potential decision before it was issued; and (d) major decisions I would reserve to myself. In this way I would be able to provide strategic leadership and deal with complex tactical problems without being encumbered by many smaller decisions, all of which needed to be made but would distract from my dealing with the “tougher decisions”. 

One thought on “The Delegation Heuristic

  1. As always, interesting read. We (I) never think that deep but we have all experienced those thoughts without names. Keep writing my friend. Missed you at retreat this year.


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