Decentralized Decision Making


Fred Perrotta

Like I Fucked Up, this post is the actual text of an email that I sent to the Tortuga team recently.

I'm sharing it publicly because this is an important part of how Tortuga works and, in my view, most companies get this wrong. Ego intrudes and leaders become deciders instead. This methodology seems obvious to me but is blasphemous to most. I tell our team to not consult me on decisions. This post explains why.

I'm writing to address something I've noticed happening more frequently. I am being asked to make decisions which should be made by the person asking me. Also, I am finding myself as the middleman in processes where I am creating an extra step without adding any value. Neither is anyone's fault, though both are unideal. These things happen accidentally but can be corrected. Now is a good opportunity to intentionally design our culture, rather than letting it happen to us.

I have no interest in, nor does Tortuga need me to, set every policy or make every decision. That’s why we hire smart, capable people (like you!) and empower them. When in doubt, rely on Tortuga’s values and be responsible if spending money.

You should lean on your teammates and on me when needed in making decisions. Most of the time, you don't need either and can make the decision yourself. When significant risk or cost or just other people are involved, please solicit opinions or check with me/them.

I hope this does not come off as an abdication of my responsibilities. I’m not saying this to be unhelpful to you. If I had to make every decision, I would be the bottleneck at Tortuga. We could never grow beyond my time and ability. Our collective ceiling is much higher than my individual one.

Instead, we should be building a team that primarily makes decentralized decisions. The person on the front lines dealing with an issue every day generally knows the most about it. S/he should make the decision. In most cases, you know more about and are closer to the decision that needs made. I would just be giving an opinion, not making an informed decision. Consider this exaggerated example: How many decisions are made by Starbucks corporate that should really be made by baristas, the people doing the work on the front lines?

My job is to make sure that everyone has the tools to make these decisions, not to be the one who makes all of them.

For more on why this matters, read this NY Times article on decision fatigue (excerpted below). Consider this when allocating your decision-making and willpower during the day. Please also consider which decisions you want me to be spending my willpower on.

"No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move."

I followed up the above email with an additional note.

One more clarification. There is an inherent tension between independent, decentralized decision making and working collaboratively as a team. Remote works lends itself to the former. We should always strive to strike the right balance. We don't want to go too far in either direction. It's always easier to keep everyone apprised of a decision than to ask everyone to make it.