Responsibility is where good things come from. It is not something I can assign to another person, nor can they assign it to me. Responsible acts happen when a person owns their own actions & decisions which leads to great things happening. For me responsibility is exactly what all companies should be encouraging. However, I’ve witnessed corporate cultures where they seem to be discouraging responsibility. The one standing out for me recently is where organizational cultures make it easy to stay in a state of obligation. I don’t believe anyone would do this on purpose (at least I hope not), but believe it comes through unconscious incompetence.
In other words, I believe management doesn’t know the impact their actions are having. In command-and-control cultures, the assumption is management knows best and needs to direct the workers. The problem is workers take no ownership for decisions management makes, and doesn’t need to take any ownership for the outcomes. Don’t get me wrong … I think there’s a lot of people doing really great work within command and control structures. However, I just think there’s a better way.
Here’s a few examples I’ve seen:
- We’ve all heard the stories where management ‘implements Agile’ for the sake of fixing a team. I know one team who was told by Senior Management they were going to start using Agile. When the team’s managers questioned how this could work given organizational constraints, they were told to stop asking questions and just make it so. With this directive from Senior Management the team assumed they had no choice but to do Agile, and set out to adopt Agile while changing as little as possible.
- I know of a manager who had a person on the team who was a problem and wasn’t working out. The manager was unwilling to let the person go as they wouldn’t be able to replace them due to a hiring freeze. The result is they approach this person with the mindset of ‘they suck’. This means when something goes wrong, management’s immediate reaction is to blame the person. In an attempt to avoid being blamed the person started doing exactly what is being asked regardless of whether they believed in or not. This has everyone in a vicious cycle of blame & obligation.
- A team of developers was not doing a good job of testing their own code before passing it along for testing. The solution in management’s eyes was to put in place a big end to end testing process. Reportedly it took 2 days for a developer to test even the smallest changes to code. The developers were left with no choice but go through the motions to satisfy management demands. Despite this extensive process quality on this team was not improving.
- A management team would accept any and all work coming their way. They would emphatically tell everyone on their team they had no choice in accepting all this work and everyone just would just have to make it happen somehow. Everyone worked very hard giving up evenings, week-ends, sleep and even vacations. The results? They continually missed delivery dates, quality was low and worst of all … people burned out. However, what choice did they have right?
In looking at each one of these examples I can see for an individual where it would be difficult to take responsibility (without quitting). Especially if the economy is tough where they might feel/be obligated to stay in order to bring home a pay cheque. The culture and environment of these companies seem to make it easy to blame someone, justify poor results, accept that “we suck”, or go through the motions of something you feel obligated to do.
Increasing responsibility is not easy as it is all about yourself. However with some intention, awareness and readiness to confront yourself it is possible! It is certainly not what I expected when I joined The Leadership GiftTM program last year. If you want to learn more about Responsibility check out http://ChristopherAvery.com.
Make sure you give the team and yourself space. I was reminded of this yesterday in a discussion with Al Shalloway. Taiichi Ohno saw too much work in progress as the root cause of waste in a system. Ohno tells us the first step to improving a system is get the work load more realistic. Too much work in progress only serves to hide the problems, and take away valuable headspace people need deal with them. Tom Demarco wrote a whole book on this subject titled Slack. In Demarco’s book he says knowledge workers should never be loaded with work more than 80% of the time. To go beyond this you will actually harm productivity.
Then if you really want a great team doing great things I would simply ask them to help you solve these problems. They’re smart people (isn’t that why you hired them?) Despite what corporate cultures would tell us, the people doing the actual work know it best. When you’re encountering a problem such as too many escaped defects, or too much work I’d start by asking for their input. They’re going to come up with some great ideas and when you move forward with them they’re going to be more vested in the outcomes.
I love how you illustrate this critically important message Mike. I especially like how you are able to showcase the way it is through unconscious incompetence. Of course, anyone who understands the mental state of Obligation would NEVER want their colleagues operating from that place, yet engage in all the policies and practices that result in it.
Thank you for the work you do to bring this to light and free some people, teams, and organizations.
Wonderful post Mike! You eloquently captured obligation and lay blame in our corporate environments. Just imagine how these organizations could succeed if their leaders and influencers operated from responsibility and led themselves first!