Empowering People with Delegation Poker

I recently posted a tweet that resulted in several people asking me for more information about delegation poker and how I have used it with teams and managers. It made sense to write a post on this subject to help not only those who reached out, but others who may benefit in the future.

What is delegation poker and why should you use it?

I first learnt about delegation poker in a Management 3.0 training workshop in 2013. Developed by Jurgen Appelo, it is a tool used to help people and teams self-organise and make organisational decision making more explicit. A high-level run down of delegation poker, with printable materials, can be found here. I will run through my approach in more detail below.

Self-organisation and empowerment is difficult. Where possible, we should try to make the boundaries of self-organisation (if any exist) as explicit and clear as possible. Delegation poker is a tool you can use to achieve this transparency. From a leadership perspective, we should be coaching our people to make their own decisions and providing a safe environment for them to do so. Delegation poker is a tool to help you create this safe environment.

After running delegation poker with a team, I have seen a decrease in the number of decisions managers have been asked to make as the team are now empowered to make these decisions themselves. This has at least two benefits. Firstly, the decisions are being made by those most impacted and therefore more informed thought and diligence will be applied. Secondly, by owning these decisions we are coaching our future leaders.

Running the workshop

To run a delegation poker you will need:

  1. A set of delegation poker cards for each attendee. If the facilitator is external to the team they do not need a set.
  2. Stickies and a whiteboard, or if remote, a collaboration tool such as google docs, stickies.io, or ideaboardz.com in a quiet place such as a meeting room or team area.
  3. All members of the team to attend, including managers.

For this blog post I will focus on running an “on premise” workshop but am happy to provide guidance in how to run this remotely.

An important thing to note is that delegation poker requires a safe and inclusive environment and this should not be taken as a given. Perform a safety check or use an experienced external facilitator who can look for signs of a lack of safety.

Step 1: Gathering decisions

Start the workshop by brainstorming decisions that might impact the team, ignoring for the moment who makes those decisions. Ask attendees to create one sticky note per decision and arrange them on the board, getting rid of duplicates. You may need to seed this brainstorming session to get the ball rolling. Some examples of common decisions include:

“people changing teams”
“can I work from home”
“using budget for training”

At the end of this part of the workshop you want to have decisions arranged on a grid that will allow you to capture the following data for each one: the team’s delegation poker result, the manager’s delegation poker result, the agreed delegation poker result, and actions. Your whiteboard may look like this:

Note, you may want to prioritise the decisions in case you won’t have time to go through them all. You can do this by dot voting.

Now, focusing on one decision at a time, perform the following steps.

Step 2: Gathering Data

Now that you have your decisions and whiteboard ready, it’s time to play poker. Start off by clarifying with the group what the decision actually means. We had a decision around recruiting new team members and after a quick discussion broke it down into “offering within salary band” and “offering above salary band”. Once the decision being made is understood by all, ask everyone to select the level of delegation they feel is required for this decision. At this point, everyone should keep their cards facedown so that we don’t influence the thinking of others.

On the count of 3, everyone holds their selected poker card for all to see. Capture this raw data. I like to capture it in a way that shows what the team selected and what the manager selected as this can provide very useful insights.

Step 3: Reconciling

In many cases, you will find that the level of delegation expected from people will vary. It is important to reconcile these differences so that the team can move forward. Take people who have very different opinions and ask them to share the reasons why they chose that value. Facilitate a group result, do not let the manager or vocal team members dictate the result. If you still cannot agree on a final value, use majority or allow everyone to use a power of veto if they feel that strongly (but don’t let this happen too many times).

By now, you have reached an agreed level of delegation for a decision. You may be happy to close off a decision here and move on to the next but the following step is where I really see value in delegation poker.

Step 4: Actions

If a decision has an agreed delegation level of 4 or below (that is, it’s an agree, consult, sell or tell) then the aim should be to find a way to move that decision to a 5 or above. Allowing the team to own as many decisions as possible is where true empowerment lies. So if the decision is 4 or below, discuss what may be needed to put in place to make the team comfortable to own that decision.

Note, as a manager, this is where you need to let go, or as I said in the original tweet, “get over yourself”.

An example of this working effectively for us was when we were discussing team entertainment expenses. The decision started with a delegation level of 4 (We will agree) however I felt this was something easily owned by the team themselves. But to feel comfortable shifting this to a 7 (Delegate fully) we all felt that a budget would be required. So we agreed on a reasonable entertainment budget and now the teams manage this themselves without a manager needing to be involved.

When discussing, agree on the final level of delegation as it may not always be a 7.

Repeat steps 2 to 4 for all decisions on the wall.

To capture the final outcomes, you can move the data to a wall in the team area. I like to have the delegation levels going across the board, with the decisions placed vertically under each one. Having it in front of everyone ensures the decisions are respected.