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"She who has the shortest to-do list wins." Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations

Take a look at your own to-do list. Are you winning? If you're like most leaders, your responsibilities and obligations grow by the second, and you never truly have a chance to say "Done." The best way - the only way - to get your to-dos under control is to delegate with discernment. Susan Scott's simple, yet powerful, Decision Tree provides a framework for effective delegation. As you develop this essential skill, you also develop accountable, empowered direct-reports. That's how you win.

A Living Organization

In her twenties, Susan Scott received some life- and career-changing advice from the president of the company for which she worked. Her leader drew a sketch of a tree and said, "Think of our company as a green and growing tree that bears fruit." Countless decisions are made "to ensure its ongoing health." Not all of those decisions are created equal. That is, not all of them require your direct input or participation; they can be delegated. This is where the sketch of the tree comes in. Scott describes the various types of decisions made to keep companies growing:

  • Leaf Decisions. Make the decision. Act on it. Do not report the action you took. If you pluck a leaf from a tree, what happens to the tree? Nothing. It remains strong. If something goes awry with a leaf decision, it will not damage the organization.
  • Branch Decisions. Make the decision. Act on it. Report the action you took daily, weekly, or monthly. Again, if a tree loses a branch, it does not impact overall growth or health. The individual can report on the action in case you need to provide some course-correction.
  • Trunk Decisions. Make the decision. Report your decision before you take action. If the trunk is damaged, the tree can survive. But it will take time and nurturing to restore it to its former health. Trunk decisions, then, have a greater impact on your organization. While direct-reports can make these decisions, they need to clear it with you or your executive team before acting.
  • Root Decisions. Discuss the options before the decision is made. Kill the roots, kill the tree. Root decisions are made by leadership. You gather input from trusted sources, but you make the call. These high-level decisions should never be delegated.

This isn't to say that poor decisions should be tolerated if they are "just" leaf decisions or "just" branch decisions. Bad choices at any level can cause harm. But the categories do reflect the degree of impact (whether good or bad) a decision can have on the organization. They also help you determine to whom various decisions should be entrusted.

Healthy Growth

Scott's Decision Tree provides an easily-grasped metaphor for organizational decision-making. Additionally, it:
  • Fosters accountability by enabling individuals to identify into which category different decisions and actions fall. They know when they have the "authority to make decisions and take action."
  • Encourages employees to develop key strengths, including leadership skills.
  • Frees you and your executive team to focus on the root decisions and activities - the responsibilities that only you can tackle.

Most empowering, though, is that it provides a pathway for employee growth. If an individual consistently makes great decisions at a trunk level, for example, then those decisions move to the branch category. That is, this person doesn't have to stop, clear his decision, and then act. Instead, he can make the decision, act, and then report. The goal is to move as many decisions to the leaf category as possible, giving him much greater ownership.

This is a clear sign of progress - one that will also help you cut that to-do list down to size as your people take on increasing levels of responsibility.

The Decision Tree, writes Scott, "is a great way to tell people where they are free to play and how they can grow." It's also a great way to free your time and energy for the tasks that only you can do and the decisions only you can make.


Larry Hart

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