How Fast Should You Delegate? Reversible and Irreversible Decisions

by Apr 25, 2023Business, Culture, Decision Making, Delegation, Leadership

It turns out there is another factor every leader needs to assess before delegating a decision: whether the issue is reversible or irreversible. I’ve written before about how leaders can better assess whether they can delegate a decision using the issue’s level of risk. I gave the analogy of a ship, where the closer the issue gets to the waterline–meaning it could sink the ship–the more cautious about delegating you need to become.

On a similar note, I’ve also written about how much information leaders need before deciding, with about 75 percent of the available information a baseline to shoot for.

Let’s consider before delegating a decision whether the issue is reversible or irreversible.


Reversible Versus Irreversible

Think about the kinds of decisions we all make daily. Let’s say we want to paint our house blue. I think we can agree this is a reversible decision. Once the work is done, we could always say, “Yikes, that looks terrible,” and then start all over and repaint the house a different color. Yes, that decision comes with new costs, lost time, and wasted effort. But it wasn’t something that was permanent.

Contrast that with another decision, like getting a tattoo on your face. While you could get laser surgery to remove most of it, the truth is that the decision to tattoo your face is what we might call irreversible. In other words, you might want to think twice before deciding.

In a business context, an irreversible decision might be firing your VP of sales. As with the tattoo, you might be able to get this person back. But likely you would have created enough bad blood that once you made the decision, you had to live with it. Other examples might be deciding to move your business out of state or selling the whole company outright.

The point is that when facing an irreversible decision like this, you need to think twice about whether you should delegate it because the consequences can be enormous.

Assessing Risk

We can build a kind of quadrant to help us assess whether certain decisions can be delegated. Picture a grid with four quadrants: low risk, reversible; high risk, reversible; low risk, irreversible, high risk, irreversible.

Any decision that we think is both low risk (above the waterline) and reversible (meaning we can hit the undo button) would be a great candidate to delegate. This might be a perfect opportunity to see how a direct report performs under a low-pressure situation.

Look at the other end of the spectrum: high-risk and irreversible. These are the kinds of issues that not only might sink the company, they also can’t be undone. Given these circumstances, it’s an issue you would not want to delegate or delegate slowly. This one is on you as the leader to make the call.

The other two quadrants are more nuanced. You might be inclined to delegate an issue with higher risk if it’s reversible. But the same could be true for a low-risk decision that is irreversible.

We can also factor in how much time and information you need in these scenarios. Again, the riskier and more irreversible the issue, the slower you want to move and the more information you want to collect before making the decision.

Taking Your Time

When it comes to making decisions, or choosing whether to delegate them, you’ll always want to assess how risky the issue tied to the decision is. But it’s also critical to consider how reversible or irreversible the decision will be. The more irreversible something is, the more you’ll want to take your time and the more information you’ll want to collect before you make your move.