Whether you’re improving your own work or helping others improve theirs,* it pays to spend time talking about who is responsible for what – and what you hope people will take responsibility for as they grow into their roles.

There are layers of responsibility.

1) Given all the necessary inputs…

Do you take responsibility for getting your job done?

2) If an input is missing…

  • Do you shrug your shoulders and put down your tools?
  • Or do you take responsibility for passing the problem to the relevant person – a colleague, supplier, manager?
  • Do you take responsibility for chasing up the solution?
  • If needed, will you work with the relevant person to make it easier for them to fix it?
  • Will you give thought to whether this problem is likely to happen again – and think about what you can do on your side to fix it (by, say, allowing more time in your process)?
  • Will you take responsibility for the breakdown in communication or process – by talking about it, asking for help, trying something new?

3) If the inputs are fine and the process is working…

  • Will you ask how it could be done better?
  • Will you think about whether you could entirely replace the process, or do away with it entirely?

4) Above and beyond the level of processes…

  • Will you take responsibility not just for the defined outcomes of the process, but for what those outcomes are actually supposed to achieve?
  • Will you set an example of excellence in the quality of your work…
  • Including how you treat people while you do it, both in and outside your organisation?
  • Will you take a degree of responsibility for other people do these things – that is, for setting and improving the culture?**

Basic competence in a defined task is just the start – taking that as given, members of your team become more valuable the further down this list they go.

There’s a world of difference between managing someone where you responsibility for their work, and working with someone who takes responsibility to make sure the right things get done in the right way – and helps you and others to do the same. Find more of those people.

*it’s usually best to think about both at once

**No-one likes a meddler, but most of the time most of us make the mistake of not taking enough responsibility for making things better.

Seth Godin on recruiting: raise the average

That next person you hire – are you lowering the average, or raising the average? ‘Cause if you’re lowering the average of your team because you’re in a hurry, when are you going to stop lowering the average of your team? How low does the average of your team go before it’s over?

On the other hand, anytime you can raise the average of your team, it’s probably a smart move.

Seth Godin – Entreleadership Podcast, Ep. 266

This applies to technical skills, but I think it’s even more relevant to team culture.


I love WhatsApp voice messages. Through the wonder of the voice message (and especially after the introduction of the wonderful voice-record lock) I have better conversations with more of my friends – many of whom I only rarely catch face-to-face – than I have done for a while.

Asynchronous or semi-synchronous (those flurries of messages back and forth in almost-real-time) messages are far easier to fit into your day, especially across timezones.

So here’s the question: what about a semi-synchronous WhatsAppterview (you heard it hear first)?

In the spirit of do it now, I’m going to try. Watch this space.


  • Will a normal phone mic straight into whatsapp produce ‘good enough’ quality?
  • Will the conversation flow?
  • Will I die stitching it together?

They’re (not quite) taking our jobs: Tim Harford on robots, spreadsheets and automation in the workplace

These are two great episodes from the BBC’s excellent 50 Things that Made the Modern Economy.

Episode: Robot

The robots are coming! Sort of. Featuring Baxter and the Jennifer headset.
More on Baxter here at WIRED.

Episode: Spreadsheet

Fantastic discussion of how the humble spreadsheet destroyed over 400,000 American jobs… and helped to create 600,000 more.

The AI menace that no-one talks about

He wants your job.

File:Bradypus torquatus BCN.jpg

The maned sloth (Bradypus torquatus), also known as the ai (/ˈɑːi/),[3] is a three-toed sloth that lives only in Brazil. It is one of four species of three-toed sloth. Source: Wikipedia

Podcasts: starting points for learning about AI

Stuart Russell on After On with Rob Reid

A thought provoking interview and excellent introduction that sounds a note of caution about AI and gives good reasons for doing so.

Highlights include:

  • some interesting stuff about how people and robots process goals and the huge number of actions and priorities that make up a single ‘simple’ action (around 32 minutes);
  • Discussion about recent progress with AI learning to play real-time strategy video games that are far more complex than chess;
  • A definition of ‘beneficial’ AI and some other nuances beyond standard ‘general artificial intelligence’ around 43 minutes;
  • A brilliant illustration about robots cooking cats at 1 hour and 16 minutes.

Rodney Brooks on Econtalk

Brooks is less concerned, and takes an ‘AI will take a lot longer to develop than anyone thinks’ approach to the topic, with some good points about how developing AI forces us to clarify our own ethics and priorities.

Start the Week with Yuval Noah Harari

Harari paints an unsettling picture of a post-human future.

Amy Web on Econtalk – Artificial Intelligence, Humanity, and the Big Nine

On my hit list. I’m a Russ Roberts fan and expect this will be a useful addition, in particular on “the implications and possible futures of a world where artificial intelligence is increasingly part of our lives.”

See Also

Resources in WtF from Kevin Kelly, Tim O’Reilly and James Gleick,

More about that monkey

This is a brilliant illustration from William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass about avoiding taking responsibility for other people’s problems.

Where Is the Monkey?

Let us imagine that a manager is walking down the hall and that he notices one of his subordinates, Jones, coming his way. When the two meet, Jones greets the manager with, “Good morning. By the way, we’ve got a problem. You see….” As Jones continues, the manager recognizes in this problem the two characteristics common to all the problems his subordinates gratuitously bring to his attention. Namely, the manager knows (a) enough to get involved, but (b) not enough to make the on-the-spot decision expected of him. Eventually, the manager says, “So glad you brought this up. I’m in a rush right now. Meanwhile, let me think about it, and I’ll let you know.” Then he and Jones part company.

Let us analyze what just happened. Before the two of them met, on whose back was the “monkey”? The subordinate’s. After they parted, on whose back was it? The manager’s. Subordinate-imposed time begins the moment a monkey successfully leaps from the back of a subordinate to the back of his or her superior and does not end until the monkey is returned to its proper owner for care and feeding. In accepting the monkey, the manager has voluntarily assumed a position subordinate to his subordinate. That is, he has allowed Jones to make him her subordinate by doing two things a subordinate is generally expected to do for a boss—the manager has accepted a responsibility from his subordinate, and the manager has promised her a progress report.

The subordinate, to make sure the manager does not miss this point, will later stick her head in the manager’s office and cheerily query, “How’s it coming?” (This is called supervision.)

William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass – Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? in the Harvard Business Review

Five Questions: Victoria Patience

1) Introduce yourself: who are you, what do you do, and why is it important?

My name’s Victoria Patience. I’m a freelance Spanish-to-English translator and author’s editor, and am also a mother, reader, cook, runner, lapsed cargo-biker, and on-off vegetable grower. Professionally, I help Spanish-speaking government organizations, nonprofits and researchers communicate effectively with English-speaking audiences. Most of my translation and editing work focuses on development, human rights, and environmental issues. Translation is important because it opens up conversations and allows many more people to take part in them. Editing work helps people say what they mean more clearly so that they can be heard better. If there is to be any hope of our finding solutions to the global problems that affect all of humanity, albeit differently, we need to be able to talk to each other and understand each other despite the linguistic and cultural chasms that separate us. Good translations are an essential part in this.

2) What’s your most valuable skill?

Solving clients’ needs/requests/problems with a minimum of fuss.

3) Describe a tool, technique or practice that makes a difference to your work.

A collaborative working arrangement that I started with two colleagues I met online. We take it in turns to send each other short texts and give each other feedback and discuss interesting issues that come up. What started as a simple exercise to improve the quality of our translations has grown into an all-encompassing professional support network that I couldn’t do without. Through it I have learned that a sure sign of good collaboration is when the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
More here.

4) What advice do you most need to hear?

You don’t need to say yes to everything. Think, breathe, and think again before accepting projects, responsibilities, deadlines — anything, really. It’s much easier to say no than to say yes and try to back out later (or wish you could).

5) Suggest a humorous or endearing question for question number five – and answer it.

This is neither humorous nor endearing but I’m your sister so I can flout your rules.
Question: Share a quote from a film, book or record that applies to your work (and hint at how it applies).
Answer: “A relationship, I think, is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark”  (Woody Allen in Annie Hall). The final sentence is how I’d like to phrase the “it’s not you it’s me” emails to clients that you know you need to break up with but just haven’t quite done it.

One last thing…

Suggest one or two people you know whose answers you’d like to read, and who you think would enjoy answering.

Step out of the picture

If you’re up to your eyeballs, and your team isn’t getting the job done, it’s sometimes necessary to do the work yourself so that it gets done and done right.

Sometimes necessary. Always dangerous.

You’re taking work back – work that presumably you took time to spec and explain to someone else – but worse than that is taking the responsibility for getting things done.

Often you’ll find that if you explain whose job it is to get something done, point them to a resource or two, and step out – remove yourself from the picture – people find amazing ways to get things done.

Do whatever you can to make sure that whoever’s got the monkey keeps it.