When a lot of organizations are transitioning from the way they used to work to a more cross-functional, agile squad way of working, they usually look for scaling frameworks to help them do it.

They’re usually worried about how to scale the practices, but the thing that really gets in the way is scaling the decision making and approvals. This is especially true when we have centralized, rather than distributed functions.

You need to start with a conversation. When we kick teams off, there are a lot of groups that feel they need to have their stamp of approval on things before they go out the door. Some of these are due to a need for regulatory compliance, which involves significant risks and possible audits. We need to figure out how to do these efficiently and systematically.

There are also other, perhaps less risky ones, like content, marketing, and copywriting. These have the opportunity to be scaled. Even when these teams have their professionals distributed in the squads, in a lot of cases, they don’t change their approval processes and decision making to fully empower the squads and teams.

Centralized Approvals

Regardless of the situation, you’ll need to have conversations and do a lot of testing and learning to see what works. You don’t need to fix a problem that might not exist. So, first, go through and see what’s holding you back from getting to a shippable release at the end of every sprint, or end of every iteration. You need to measure when approvals cause delays.

Now, for regulated industries with compliance and audits, you need to build it in from the start. You’re always going to need the checklists and approvals, so you need to be staffed accordingly to have the availability of those resources. You need to move toward smaller and more frequent approvals, rather than one-month batch approvals. In my experience, these types of up-front approvals usually make the holdups clear enough that they get fixed fairly quickly.

The ones that hold things back are for things that are less risky — like marketing & copywriting. These functions have dedicated people on the team, but they still want the one approver to give their blessing, and I get it. The person with approval power usually has the most experience. They have a lot of talent and skills, and that’s great. They built that great experience over the course of their career, it’s really something special. We value them, but instead of them making all the decisions, what we need to do is have them push that down to the teams.

Before when we used print media, it was a huge risk to not have a single approver do a final review before we print all the material and pay for the warehousing and distribution costs. Fixing the mistake caused a lot of expense to correct and redo those activities. In the digital era, we are continuously connected to the final content and fixes are instantaneously and leverage the cost savings digital production has over traditional print production.

Pushing it down to the teams doesn’t mean we still don’t need all that experience and talent. We need it more than ever! What we need them to do is to create a checklist for every type of thing they work on. How do they review & approve things? What are the things they look for? Are we on brand? Are we using the right format? Are we using the right language? The experts can then socialize these checklists & principles all over the organization so that we’re all looking to really build it the way they would, and we can alllook for defects, no matter which group we’re in. More eyes are better than a few.

Decentralized approvals

Eventually, instead of the one decision maker spending a lot of time performing all the reviews and approvals, this effort only lasts at the time of the approval, this person’s talent can be better used to coach and mentor their teams to show them what to look for in approving and making decisions. That’s long lasting after you retire, or as your people move on. Everyone on the team will remember how you grew them to be able to approve and make decisions. More importantly, it allows the Scrum teams (or squads) to get things done within an iteration without waiting for a centralized decision maker.

If you’re in a marketing or copywriting group, or some other supporting function, and your product team is moving to an agile or Scrum methodology, if you still feel you need that centralized approval before releasing things that are going to the public, I’d like to leave you with three things:

  1. Create a checklist of all the things you look for. That way, you can share that knowledge and help grow the set of eyes looking at it.
  2. Once you have that checklist, you need to socialize it and spread it all over, so everybody gets it.
  3. Use this as an opportunity to learn how to spread your knowledge, wisdom, and experience.

There is no greater satisfaction than growing people. Making decisions and approving things ensures quality. Improving learning and coaching ensures quality, scalability, and growth.

Every keystroke is precious so I will end here.