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.

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.”

Peter Drucker on social responsibility

A business that does not show a profit at least equal to its cost of capital is irresponsible; it wastes society’s resources. Economic profit performance is the base without which business cannot discharge any other responsibilities, cannot be a good employer, a good citizen, a good neighbor.

But economic performance is not the only responsibility of a business any more than education is the only responsibility of a school or health care the only responsibility of a hospital.

Every organisation must assume responsibility for its impact on employees, the environment, customers, and whoever and whatever it touches.

That is social responsibility. But we also know that society will increasingly look to major organizations, for-profit and non-profit alike, to tackle major social ills. And there we had better be watchful, because good intentions are not always socially responsible. It is irresponsible for an organisation to accept – let alone to pursue – responsibilities that would impede its capacity to perform its main task and mission, or to act where it has no competence.

Peter Drucker – Managing in a time of Great Change

Externalities

We’re familiar with the externalities of industrial production and consumption. They’re fairly predictable, and often visible. Even air pollution, the silent killer, is usually visible when it happens, before the poison spreads. It’s a perfect example of a negative externality – something put into the world that everyonepays for, not just the producer or the consumer.

What are the externalities of your project, program or product? What invisible outputs do you have?

  • What does your way of working with users, customers or clients say that your words leave out? How do they see you seeing them? Do they leave feeling smaller, more pressured, less competent – or with a greater belief in their ability to get better and to make a difference? (As you teach that vital knowledge and share those crucial skills, what else are you teaching?)

  • As you manage your team, how do they feel when they leave the office? What do they take home with them? What are your externalities for their families, friends and neighbourhoods?

    • What about your suppliers – the people who serve you as you serve others. What externalities do you have for the people in the photocopy shop, the electrician who comes to the office, or for your cleaners?

  • What about your suppliers – the people who serve you as you serve others. What externalities do you have for the people in the photocopy shop, the electrician who comes to the office, or for your cleaners?

Not polluting – ‘do no evil’ – isn’t nearly enough.

Trust

Make your systems strong.

Have a clear process: where does the money come from, where does it go?

Account for it transparently: how are movements of money planned, approved, recorded, tracked and evidenced?

Have checks and controls: Who sets things up? Who approves payments? Who checks? Who checks the checker?

Minimise temptation and opportunity.

But at the end of the day, if you can’t trust someone – don’t work with them.

Show me the money

Love it or loathe it, you’ve got to know where the money’s going to come from, and where it all goes.

Get it right from the start – it’s essential to the health and credibility of your project or organisation.

It also works like an extra sense, helping you spot trends, opportunities and issues earlier than you might have otherwise.

Financial Intelligence, Revised Edition: A Manager’s Guide to Knowing What the Numbers Really Mean by Karen Berman and Joe Knight is a really great place to start.

A downhill slope (find others)

If you’re in a book group, social pressure is going to get you to read that book. The act of joining the book group is the hard part. Once you’re in the book group, the books are going to get read, because now you’re playing a game. It’s a game you’re enrolled in, it’s one you want to move forward.

The easiest way to start creating this game dynamic is to form a group. To find others, to find others and challenge those others to play the game with you. Because we all know that solitaire might be a little fun, but solitaire isn’t the kind of game we dream of when we dream of games.

We do better when we do it together.

Seth Godin – Akimbo – The Wedding Industrial Complex

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Make it happen. Find others. Say the words.

Team Performance (1)

I’ve just been listening to Richard Hackman on teams and team performance. His first lens for evaluating team performance is straight forward:

Delivering the goods

Did you get the job done? How well did you do it?

Who is the legitimate receiver, user, reviewer of this performance and what to they think of it? Did you serve the client first?

At a non-profit leader you might have several ‘customers’: the people you serve, donors, the team itself. If you can’t keep everyone happy, where do your priorities lie?

I listened to Andy Kaufman interviewing Richard Hackman on the People and Projects Podcast.

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 1: Real Work for Clients First

This is the first in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Rule 1: Ship Real Work

“Planning and coordination are fine, but not if they don’t lead to real work. Don’t spend time trying to please [middleman-funder-etc] – the real work is figuring out how to engage with and serve your customer.

In the non-profit world:

The real work

Vision and mission statements, organisational structure, a shiny website, gala dinners are fine – but they are not your purpose, and they are not your real work.

The real work is getting in front of the people you are aiming to serve – first your clients (or ‘beneficiaries’) and secondarily potential donors. If you’re not getting to know and making a difference for your clients, you’re wasting your time. Your project is almost certainly a waste of money, and quite possibly the worst kind of vanity exercise.

In my experience this kind of work is often messy and quite often slightly unsatisfactory – because you’re working with real people, who quite often have those traits…

Two types of customer

In a non-profit, it’s quite possible that your services are paid for people people other than your clients – most charities are working in two-sided markets – donor pays, client receives benefit (incidentally, most news and magazine companies, and Google and Facebook, among others, operate this model).

The question is… what are your ‘donors’ buying? It might be:

  • The knowledge that they’ve done some good in the world
  • The ability to show off to their friends that they’ve done something good in the world
  • A fulfilled CSR requirement, and a pleased boss
  • The confidence that their money has been used responsibly and effectively

It’s really easy to exaggerate the work that you do. It’s easy to make grand claims, tell only the best stories, and play to every donor’s particular foibles, telling them what they want to hear so that they’ll give you money, and keep on giving you money.

Don’t.

At the end of the day, the product that your donors and supporters are buying (or should be buying) is the work that you do for your clients. Everything else is (relatively speaking), fluff.

And at all costs resist the temptation to let the ‘needs’ of your donors shape what you do for your clients. Don’t lose sight of the reason you’re doing this in the first place. Listen to your supporters, but always be clear that you seek to serve your clients first, to focus on their needs and make a real difference to them in a way that they value.

Be accountable to your clients and their needs first of all, and everything else will be (relatively) easy.

Rule 1 of bootstrapping the non-profit

Ship real work for your clients [beneficiaries] first. Be real with your supporters.

* More on being real with your supporters in Rule 3

Who pays? (3)

Last but not least… changing who pays for what can help you to take better care of your team.

In the early years we asked team members to do occasional evening and weekend work as part of their contract. This worked okay, but created two bad incentives.

  1. We had effectively already paid for for the extra time in advance, so we had an incentive to use the resource (out-of-work-hours work) that we’d already paid for more than we otherwise might – it wasteful not to.
  2. To get our money’s worth, we were less careful about arranging work commitments outside office hours. We gained by using (or over-using) our staff – in effect, we were asking them to pay the price of the additional activities we chose to do.

To solve this problem, we started paying our staff a bonus for every night that they spent away from home for work. If the work is important, it’s worth paying for – so we (or the customer) pays, and our employees are happy to be compensated for their lost time.

If the work isn’t important, we’re forced to ask the question “is it worth paying this much to get this done?”. If the answer is no, we don’t do it.