The Delegation of Responsibility without Authority

Copyright © 2018-2019 Daniel Mezick & Mark Sheffield. All Rights Reserved.

Organizations are under pressure to be more adaptive. One of the biggest problems facing organizations today is the routine delegation of responsibility without the required authority needed to actually deliver. This pattern is actually a signature aspect of a low-engagement culture… and failed change initiatives.


Responsibility is the state of being accountable for an event or an outcome. Authority is “the right to do work.” Some of the most important work is the work of making decisions. If you are properly authorized, it means you have permission (aka “authorization”) to make decisions as needed to complete the task. It also usually means you have permission to access any resources needed to execute on your responsibility.


Leaders can delegate responsibility, authority, or both. What happens very often is the responsibility is delegated, but the requisite authority needed to actually do the job is not. This leads to all sorts of problems. This is because authority is the “right to do work” and without it, you do not have the right to execute on your responsibilities. It’s a no-win situation.


Delegation is distinct from invitation in this way: with invitation, there is no compulsion.The receiver of the invitation is in charge of the decision to engage, or not. The receiver is in charge of the decision to accept or decline the invitation. With invitation, the receiver can opt-out of any “responsibility without authority” situation. With delegation, they cannot.


Most organizational change initiatives are compulsory in nature. Everyone must participate, regardless of what they think. And as you might suspect, there is usually delegation of responsibility without the authority needed to actually do the job.


Typical Scrum implementations offer a great example of this. Scrum is often implemented during digital and Agile transformation initiatives. In the Scrum framework, the Product Owner role makes decisions about the prioritization of work.


The Scrum Guide says:

“For the Product Owner to be successful, everyone in the organization must respect his or her decisions.”


Since it is seldom the case that everyone in the organization respects the decisions of the Product Owner, the person in the role cannot actually do the job. The Product Owner is left with all of the responsibility and little if any of the decision-making authority needed to actually execute. This prevents Scrum from actually working.



The “responsibility without authority” pattern virtually guarantees failure.  If this is happening in your “transformation” initiative, what is really happening is that the way decisions are being made is not actually changing, so there is literally no “transformation” of anything at all.


Delegation carries the risk of the “responsibility without authority” pattern, which is a “no win” pattern of failure. It opens the door to employee disengagement and even resentment.


But invitation doesn’t carry this risk. Why?


Because under invitation, the receiver is not compelled and will rationally avoid any “no-win” situations. This fact means that leadership invitation is often superior to leadership delegation, because the receiver will accept an invitation to be responsible “if and only if” the  requisite authority  is also part of the deal.



Think about this deeply as you consider the change initiative inside your own organization.  Do you want to engage people, in service to better results through more self-management? If so, consider favoring invitation over delegation, because invitation actually invites a decision, and as it turns out, decision-making is very engaging.  Invitations invite a decision which is almost the exact same thing as inviting engagement.

The use of invitation does require some up-front design of the overall request. This requirement therefore encourages much more mindfulness from the sender.

For all of these reasons, the use of invitation over delegation therefore makes it much more likely that you will actually engage the receiver.