Why We Delegate: The Darkness Principle

From a complexity perspective, there is a good reason why teams in an organization must be able to make decisions together. This follows logically from the Darkness Principle:

Each element in the system is ignorant of the behavior of the system as a whole […] If each element ‘knew’ what was happening to the system as a whole, all of the complexity would have to be present in that element. – K.A. Richardson

What we learn from the Darkness Principle is that each team member can only have an incomplete mental model of the whole project. That is why they have to plan and decide together. It is why Scrum and Extreme Programming require the whole team to be present during planning meetings and daily stand-ups. The team members must aggregate their limited mental models and agree on a joint approach.

Some managers are not comfortable with the idea of allowing a team to make decisions together. They feel they lose control over what’s happening when teams make decisions without them. Managers assume that decisions must be enforced, or otherwise anarchy unfolds. But that same anarchy has constructed an entire universe, all by itself. So it cannot be all that bad.

“The switch to worker self-management is occurring because it is a way to increase control over the uncertainties facing a work team.” – Kenneth Thomas

Managers must learn that they are “in charge, but not in control” (Ralph Stacey). In fact, any attempts to “control and contain” usually don’t work, and sometimes even have counterproductive consequences. For example, it is found that attempts of the police to control and contain crowds can cause the problems that the police is trying to prevent (New Scientist).

Nobody on a team (or in a crowd) has a complete picture of all that’s happening in the entire group. By letting them solve their problems and make decisions together you actually increase control over the situation.

Mike Cohn once said that agile software development is micromanagement by the team. The Darkness Principle makes it clear that it is this micromanagement that must be delegated from the manager to the team.

(image by a2gemma)

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  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p0120a6924fad970c Michael Dubakov

    Nice post. I share your vision.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p0120a69302f0970c Matthias Marschall

    It’s really interesting as a manager to actually see how a project gets better by letting the team manage itself. It’s so much easier even for the manager if you can tab into the complete pool of “mental models” of your team mates. Not doing that always leads to bad decisions. “The darkness principle” sounds like a sound explanation of that fact.
    If a manager let’s the team organize itself he can finally concentrate on his true responsibilities: removing impediments and setting direction.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/scottgould Scott Gould

    Very good – “in charge, not in control”
    I’ve been writing about the same thing, pointing out that an increase in spreadability of ideas requires ‘guidance not governance’, and that the fear of social media for many companies is this very issue of not being able to ‘govern’ or ‘control’ it.
    I’ll be linking here!

  • http://blogs.salleurl.edu/project-management Think like a project manager

    This is very interesting. Some weeks ago I read a book, the Lazy Project Manager, about the benefits of delegating. Trying to control every little detail is losing your time and the time of your team members.

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