Management is editing

It seems obvious to me that decisions should always be pushed down as far as necessary to find the people who have the best knowledge to make them. Any responsible business will try to hire experts in whatever fields it needs, and they are most likely closer to the problems that needs solving than those above them in the orgchart.

By definition, this means that managers should almost never be the ones making tactical decisions, because their focus is typically on breadth rather than depth, and, therefore, they are unlikely to be the ultimate experts in any kind of vertical problem space.

When managers call the shots, they are essentially substituting their own shallow knowledge for the much deeper knowledge of those who report to them, which creates all kinds of poor outcomes: People feel micromanaged, managers feel overworked, and the decisions made are almost never great.

On the other hand, managers are, of course, responsible for every decision made under them. In a great org, that means that managers want to maximize the ROI of everything their teams do; even at a not-so-great org, they probably fear the repercussions of a mistake.

Listen to the Mouse

As a result of this dichotomy, the temptation to simply dictate what your team should do is always present, and often hard to resist, especially for first-time leaders. If you’re not supposed to make decisions, how do you keep things under control?

A good answer comes from Michael Eisner in the Disney+ documentary The Imagineering Story:

Good creative management don’t come up with the ideas. They don’t execute the ideas. What they do is, they act as an editor. You choose the best meal, then you hope they cook it well, and you keep coming back and saying, it’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s too green, it’s too blue.

I don’t know how well this vision matches what actually went on at Disney under Eisner’s tenure, but I wholeheartedly agree with its sentiment: Being a manager—creative or not—means making decisions about decisions.

Your job, therefore is to create an environment that generates lots of ideas, making sure that good ones receive support and thrive, while bad ones are identified early and either improved or simply discarded before too many resources are invested in them.

What constitutes “good” and “bad” is a problem onto itself. If you arbitrarily promote or terminate projects without explanation, you come across as a petty despot, and encourage folks to lose interest in coming up with great ideas. You need a strong set of foundational principles rooted in objective fact to guide your decision-making process, and you should always be able to draw a line between a decision and these principles, so that the people around you understand how you came to a conclusion (and can learn to do the same themselves).