Responsibility

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.

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

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.

Buckstop (find friends)


You can only carry the can so far.

If you started an organisation or business and the buck ultimately stops with you and no-one else, you need to make it a priority to find some friends to share the load. Find people who will make what you’re doing theirs as well as yours, own it and take responsibility for its continuation and success.

Ideally, you need more than one friend: as Clay Shirky points out in this excellent set of videos about network theory, three people in conversation is fundamentally different from two. If one side of a two-person conversation leaves, the conversation stops. With three people in the conversation (or more), people can leave and be replaced, and the conversation continues. In fact, every single participant can change, and it can still be the same conversation.

If you’re a free-lancer, and one day you can deliver your last piece of work, get paid, and close up shop, then you need friends for a different reason. But if you’re building something bigger than yourself – especially if it’s in service of a cause – you’ll soon have responsibility for other people’s work and salaries, and it will get old fast if you’re alone at the top.

Find friends.

Spec-ulation

If you’re asking someone to do something for you, an appropriate spec goes a long way.

A good spec saves everyone time and effort* and demonstrates that you value the work and other people’s time and energy.

You might include answers to the following questions:

  • Big picture, what needs to happen?
  • Why is it important – what will doing this thing achieve?
  • What are the details that you need to specify? (Mainly focused on the outcome. This will vary depending on the task, the skills of the person doing the job and your relationship to them – i.e. what can you take on trust – but must include anything that would cause you to reject the product.)
  • What are the details you don’t care much about? (Probably about the process.)
  • What suggestions or resources can you provide?
  • When should it finished by?
  • Who is responsible for getting this thing done?

The last question is critical – it’s really easy to hand over a task and still have it be your responsibility. In which case you will be the one filling in the holes and chasing up last details, which defeated the point of getting help in the first place.

*Perhaps that should read “a good spec given to a competent person, where competence includes knowing how to read, follow and question the spec where needed.”

The hard part: other people

Your work probably has several hard parts, and one of them is almost certainly other people.

If only they would…

… do their jobs properly / be vaguely professional / relate to each other as grown-ups / take responsibility / have a little consideration / not bring home issues to the office / leave you alone …

… you life would be much easier.

But if you didn’t have to work on any of these these things…

… they’d probably be bored / you’d have a too-exclusive team / they wouldn’t be people / they wouldn’t need you.

If you’re a manager or leader, these things are at the centre of your contribution:

  • Helping people do their best work
  • Creating a culture and ways of working that enables your colleagues to manage themselves and each other
  • Knowing them well and supporting them personally
  • Taking time to help them with the abstract and emotional and with the nitty-gritty of their work
  • Finding training, tools, relationships that will help them to thrive
  • Having uncomfortable and very specific conversations about what needs to be done and by when and what is and isn’t working …. and dealing with the fact that people don’t always like being told
  • Doing it regularly – being accountable to yourself for your responsibility

If you’re not having fairly regular “Why do I have to deal with this crap?” moments, you might be very lucky, but it might be a sign that you’re not doing something very hard.

Crunch time

… isn’t the push to meet a tight deadline, or what you do under pressure.

Crunch time is when you have a bit of time, space and discretion about what to do, and you don’t really feel like showing up.

  • It’s paying attention to people and processes when they’re doing well, long before they break down
  • It’s committing a bit of time every week to work on the important, non-urgent tasks that will bear fruit (or suddenly overwhelm you) down the road
  • It’s going to the gym and doing something when you feel a bit off-colour
  • It’s about being a pro – about showing up and shipping the work – rather than being ‘authentic‘ or following your feelings in the moment

Crunch time about is what you commit to, under what conditions, and how you set things up and get the work done long before the crisis, so that crunch time in traditional sense rarely happens.

If you can keep your momentum when you’re not feeling great, when your motivation wanes, when there’s an interesting distraction… then you’ve done most of the hard work. The easy days will take care of themselves.

The time and the energy

As in, “I don’t know where you get them.”

I can’t make more time*, and you almost certainly know more than I do about managing your energy. But here are a couple of thoughts about doing stuff – and having fun – that relate to both.

Diminishing costs

You can (and should) ‘create’ time and energy by saving them through eliminating things from your life.

But you can also save time and energy by doing more, or at least by doing the things you already do more often, because doing them often makes them easier. For lots of things this is simply because you get better at them, so they cost you less time, and often less energy. For other things, the habit of doing them reduces the emotional energy needed to get going, or even to decide to get going.

Some examples:

  • If you exercise regularly, it gets easier
  • If you travel all the time, packing bags and getting to the airport becomes automatic
  • If you blog every day, a blog post can take ten minutes to write instead of two hours.
  • If you make films regularly – if, say, it’s your job – you’re probably an order of magnitude faster than an amateur
  • Giving feedback – and having difficult conversations with people about their work – becomes much easier if you do it relatively frequently
  • Cooking is easier if you do it a lot – you think and look for stuff less and spend more time actually cooking

This is partly about having things set up (you know where your tools are and they’re ready to use when you want them), partly about skill and experience (you’re better at the things you do often, so you’re faster), and partly about decisions (you’ve decided more things in advance and can get straight into the work, rather than sitting around and wondering about what font to use or shoes to wear).

Increasing Returns

For many things things, doing them more also increases their value:

  • Sport and exercise is way more fun when you’re fit. All types of exercise – not just the one you do – become more fun. And as you get fitter you discover more energy and fun in the rest of the day.
  • The more you write about something, the more you have to say about it – the quality of your thinking and ability to express it increases too
  • Cooking is more pleasurable when you’re good at it… people compliment you on your cooking, so you enjoy it more, so you do it more…
  • Reading is more interesting, richer, funnier, more useful the more you’ve read
  • The more you contribute to an area of work (or play), the more rewarding your conversations and relationships become, and the more new people, ideas and opportunities come your way

Some of these are just side-effects of things getting easier, but many things benefit from positive feedback loops and network effects: doing things and making stuff leads you to new ideas, techniques and people, and new things become possible… leading to more new possibilities.

Outcome

If doing something becomes easier, relatively cheaper, faster and more convenient to do at the same time that it becomes more enjoyable and more productive, you’re a lot more likely to feel like doing it… so you’ll find ways to do it, and you’ll do it even when tiredness might have stopped you in the past. And then you’ve got momentum, so you’re less likely to stop… so you’re more likely to enjoy the rewards and do it more.

Voila: time and energy.

*Send me a private message if you do

Asal dapur ngebul*

My whiteboard, in our dapur (kitchen) – a few to dos and a lot of posts in gestation

Indonesian saying.

“As long as the kitchen is smoking.”

Um…

“As long as there’s smoke from the kitchen (fireplace).” ?

“As long as the hearth is burning.”

… which is a way of saying, among other things, the important thing is that the important things keep happening… or that you’ve got to do what it takes to keep things going.

Do what it takes, and do a little every day. Just a step – enough progress that you don’t stop progressing. Keep the fire lit.

Never quit smoking.**

*more correctly – but less idiomatically – spelt ‘ngepul’

**But don’t burn the place down