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.

Champion (2)

Noun
2 A person who vigorously supports or defends a person or cause.
‘he became the determined champion of a free press’
2.1 historical A knight who fought in single combat on behalf of the monarch.

Verb
Vigorously support or defend the cause of. ‘he championed the rights of the working class and the poor’

OED

Now this type of champion is worth having. Not necessarily a winner in themselves, but someone who helps someone else to win. They know you – probably including a realistic assessment of your flaws – but know that you, your team, your purpose are still worth fighting for.

Your organisation needs friends, and it needs allies, but it would really benefit from some champions. Champions help you out, tell you what you need and help you get it – often by telling others about what you need and suggesting that they give it to you.

If you’re not sure if you’ve got a champion, you don’t. Ask other people if they’ve got any amazing board members, friends, mentors or supporters, and try to get to a meeting (breakfast of champions?) and see them in action.

Don’t try to convince the lukewarm – find a champion. They’ll fight for your success, and they might just change the game.

If you can find a champion, well… that’s champion.*

*Adjective. British , informal, dialect: Excellent. ‘‘Thank ye, lad,’ the farmer said. ‘That’s champion.’’

Champion, or Ways to Win (1)

There are a couple of types of champion:

Noun 1 A person who has surpassed all rivals in a sporting contest or other competition [as modifier‘a champion hurdler’ [OED]

This is the winner, the vanquisher of foes. We all enjoy being this kind of champion – as individuals (probably especially as individuals) and as part of a team (“We are the champions”).

There are good champions and bad ones – heroes and villains, magnanimous victors and churls – but champions are a good thing. It’s fun to strive for something, it’s motivating to compete, and more often than not we like it when someone wins.

It’s also fleeting (“This year’s champions”), and – if you think about it in the wrong way – sets you up for inevitable failure. Sooner or later, someone else will be the champion.

And the things that we can win definitively are rarely important, and rarely satisfying in the long run. They are small, clearly defined, rule-constrained, finite games*.

When we’re striving to win these games, it’s worth double checking what we’re burning up to get there – time, energy, materials, relationships, opportunities – and weighing carefully what we get in return, because ‘fun’ is really the main thing we get from being a champion.

In the morning, life goes on.

All the other rewards of being a champion – prizes, status, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are as winners, and what we say about everyone else – take their meaning from other games we play.

More on this tomorrow.

*See this post, or go straight to James Carse‘s Finite and Infinite Games

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.

Ben Horowitz – The Hard Thing About Hard Things

This is a great cut-the-crap book about management and building a company. It’s most relevant to the the tech world, but there are plenty of gems here that are relevant to anyone – he’s especially good on shaping your culture (hint: yoga at work is not your organisational culture).

Here’s the introduction:

Every time I read a management or self-help book, I find myself saying “That’s fine, but that wasn’t really the hard thing about the situation.”

The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal.

The hard thing isn’t hiring great people. The hard thing is when those “great people” develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things.

The hard thing isn’t setting up an organizational chart. The hard thing is getting people to communicate within the organization that you just designed.

The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in he middle of the night in a cold sweat when your dream turns into a nightmare.

The problem with these books is that they attempt to provide a recipe for challenges that have no recipes. There’s no recipe for really complicated, dynamic situations. There’s no recipe for building a high-tech company; there’s no recipe for leading a group of people out of trouble; there’s no recipe for making hit songs; there’s no recipe for running for president … and there’s no recipe for motivating people when your business has turned to crap.

That’s the hard thing about hard things: there is no formula for dealing with them.

Nonetheless, there are many bits of advice and experience that can help with the hard things.

I do not attempt to present a formula in this book. Instead, I present my story and the difficulties that I have faced.

I share my experiences in the hope of providing clues and inspiration for others who find themselves in the struggle to build something out of nothing.

Ben Horowitz – The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Highly recommend.

Cohort

Seth Godin talks quite a lot about cohorts: “The people who get you. The ones who have been through it with you. Who see you.” An emphasis on peer-relationships is one of the defining features of his highly rated and very-low-drop-out-rated online workshops.

He’s got me thinking again about the value of a group of people doing similar work, with similar levels of experience. These are people – ‘fellow travellers‘ – who can relate to your struggles, share what they know, encourage you to keep going, push you to get put there and do better work. By turns they might be sounding-boards, collaborators, mentors, sympathetic ears, or champions of your work.

Where’s your cohort?

It’s relatively easy to find them among peers when your training for something – in school, on a course (although I’m agnostic about finding them on an online course), in your time in the army (!), or in the trenches doing your job. When I was teaching, colleagues at about the same stage of their careers were definitely my cohort.

But having a good cohort becomes harder if you move around, or as you start to manage and lead – by default there will be fewer ‘people like us’ around, and there are fewer natural opportunities to meet. Maintaining a cohort becomes something that you need to do deliberately by seeking people out and having conversations, by asking questions, looking for opinions and advice, and sharing resources with people who find them helpful.

Five Questions and – slowly – the Driverless Crocodile podcast are a way of doing this.

That saying (wherever it’s from) might be right: “… if you want to go far, go together.” Find friends for your work.