Context: It takes us time to decide to fix problems, and we let some problems fester because we don’t want to get anywhere near them. When we are on a team, we can blame someone or something else for a problem, and often do. We might blame our own permanent flaws for a problem, feeling guilty. None of this blaming seems to fix anything, but we stick to our comfort zone. Pitching in to fix problems can associate us with the problem and put us in danger. It might be a tar baby.
We delay improvement by avoiding responsibility, leaving problems unresolved…
We are responsible for an outcome if our action or inaction affected it. People assert we are “responsible for a failure,” if we could have prevented it. We assert we were “not responsible for a failure,” if we were not authorized or equipped to prevent the problem that caused the failure. People characterize us as “a responsible person” if we act to prevent or recover from failures.
We readily claim responsibility for success, but refrain from claiming responsibility for failure. When people feel powerless to affect success and failure, they tend to give up trying. It feels wrong to take responsibility for failures where we feel others had more control, and unfair to be held responsible when our passivity allowed failures to occur (Omission Bias, 2018).
We like to operate in our comfort zone, where we can exercise our skills with mastery. This helps a collective effort when specialized skills are needed, but otherwise our specialties may contribute little or nothing to an outcome. People sometimes seek to protect their special status by working in isolation, by hoarding specialist tasks, or by denigrating those with similar skills.
When demand for a particular specialty is high, a group may not have the capacity to meet the demand, and the whole effort may fail. When the demand for a specialty is low, a specialist could continue to produce specialized assets that aren’t needed, creating waste and additional failure risks.
Productivity declines when team members are given strict job responsibilities (Ichinowski et al. 1997, Roberts 2007). This is likely due to mismatches between assigned job responsibilities and natural shifts in skill demand.
Members having greater agency—i.e., the capacity to affect the outcome—more readily take responsibility (Smiley 2017). When others perceive us controlling a situation, it motivates us to act rapidly to fix problems and prevent future failures. But peoples’ persistence is more a function of self-perception rather than objective influence. A person’s self-perceived ability to achieve a goal determines the effort a person will exert in that activity in the future. If they believe they cannot control the outcome, they will put little effort toward future success (Bandura 1988, Weiner 2006).
When people tell specific people they are inherently “responsible” or “irresponsible” people, it demotivates their future problem solving. Actor feedback is inversely correlated with improvement. If someone says you are a “responsible person,” you become complacent; if someone says you are an “irresponsible person,” you become defensive. People can take responsible actions or perspectives, but none of us do this consistently; we all have human limits. An alternative is to say “your behavior was irresponsible” or “your behavior was responsible,” which reminds people they have choices.
The Responsibility Process® claims that when failures occur, people progress through a series of unproductive stages before acting responsibly to solve problems (Elssamadisy 2009). Unfortunately, they can get stuck in any unproductive stage, leaving unaddressed problems to recur.
- We may deny the problem. If our web system crashes in the middle of the day, I might say “power outages always happen around this time, because the load is so high. No big deal.” Of course, the problem doesn’t get fixed when we deny something failed.
- We blame others, when we cannot ignore the failure. If I tripped on a wire and caused our entire manufacturing plant to shut down, I might say, “Who put that wire right there on the floor? Not only did it cause the plant to shut down, but it’s a safety hazard!” I cannot take responsibility, because I could not control the outcome, supposedly.
- We justify our actions by blaming circumstances, realizing that “there but for the grace of God go I” (Bradford 1848). The nature of the world, our country, our company, our community, our policies or anything else we can blame caused the failure, and therefore, neither we nor others are responsible. If I arrive late to a meeting, I might say, “The traffic was horrible!” I cannot take responsibility, because I could not control the outcome, supposedly.
- We blame ourselves and feel ashamed, when we realize we could have prevented the failure. We are inherently too stupid, too emotional, too stubborn to have prevented the failure. We’re too embarrassed to take action or ask for help, so we blame our inherent nature. I cannot take responsibility, because I could not control the outcome, supposedly.
- We may feel obligation to continue “doing our job” despite that we will likely continue to experience failure. After all, our kids are in private school, we have a mortgage, etc. This world of obligation turns us into robots, mechanically following the same well-worn path, experiencing the same failures over and over again, and perhaps getting used to them. But at least the shame is gone.
- We may quit. We can divorce, leave our job, move out of the house, stop exercising, or take the dog to the pound. Sometimes the situation damages or corrupts us. In these circumstances, we may conclude that we simply can’t be responsible in the situation, and we leave. But if our action or inaction was part of the problem, and we don’t change, later failures will likely continue to plague us.
- We finally take responsibility for the outcome, by analyzing the failure objectively, coming up with potential solutions, with or without collaborators, and taking action to resolve the problem.
Every state but the last is lazy. We do nothing to improve the situation until we reach the final state of responsibility. Though we may feel sorry for someone stuck in a state of guilt, moping around requires no work. We may share someone’s anger with a political party for “ruining the country,” but raging requires no work. We avoid taking risks or doing work to fix a problem.
Untrustworthy groups or individuals can inhibit responsibility. Some organizations have a blame culture. Here, publicly taking responsibility for team and personal failures can be dangerous, with a high “face cost” (the loss of esteem). If people are afraid to discuss problems openly, or if leaders attribute problems to others rather than themselves, it could be “career limiting” to discuss failures and what you learned from them. Others involved in those failures may fear the attention, and use your openness as a vulnerable opening. You could fix problems secretly, however, “secret responsibility” compromises your effectiveness and allows incompetent people to take credit (thus preserving another problem).
Success provides fertile ground for the denial state. Some organizations are so successful that people barely perceive failure, even though they could learn from it. I once worked with a large software company that shipped a suite of business tools. One product in the suite was tried by fewer than 1% of the people who bought the suite, and regularly used by less than 0.1%. However, the finance department attributed the profits from the suite equally among the tools. I walked into the office one day, to see a big banner proclaiming the success of the product: “Congratulations team! Over $1 billion earned in 2012!” People in this organization rarely discussed failure, because the leaders themselves could not transparently distinguish between success and failure.
Timing can affect our perspective. If we join a dysfunctional situation, we often take the perspective that the problem isn’t ours, i.e., we blame circumstances or operate from obligation. Yet, the problem remains unresolved, despite that we could have the capacity and secure the authority to fix it.
… therefore, help people embrace collective responsibility, to resolve problems rapidly.
Collective responsibility is the notion that if each individual in a group can affect the group’s results, we can attribute the successes and failures of the group to every individual. Collective responsibility asserts that if a student fails, each individual involved—including students, teachers, parents, school administrators—is responsible for that failure (Lee 1996). This sense of collective responsibility improves outcomes in educational settings. In an extreme example, collective responsibility asserts that if a group commits genocide against another group, each person claiming membership in the first group is responsible for the genocide (Isaacs et al. 2011, Kovach 2006).
Three conditions—autonomy, understanding and agency—allow us to assert a member has collective responsibility (Pettit 2007). Autonomy means the member can choose an action that will affect the outcome. (If they have no other choices, it can include protest resignation from the group.) Understanding means the member has enough information to make a wise choice. Agency means the member has sufficient control to execute the action.
We can motivate members to act on behalf of the group, by better aligning their values with the group’s values (Paarlberg et al. 2007). Avery argues that this alignment, particularly with small teams, is two-way: members bring their personal interests and values, and the group brings its goals and mission. When both member values and group values are negotiable, we can drive higher alignment (Avery 2001).
We can increase agency by providing group members with broader authority, greater information or more training. We can increase skill capacity by encouraging collaboration, such as through pairing, by coaching or by mentoring.
Collective responsibility motivates the development of broadly skilled colleagues. T-shaped professionals, for example, have a few well-developed specialty skills and broad capabilities in other areas. Broader skills in a group creates greater elasticity for uneven demand and avoids wasteful creation of specialist assets before they are needed. This concept is implicit in the Collective Code Ownership pattern of XP.
The Responsibility Process teaches us we cannot avoid moving through irresponsible stages to reach responsibility. We need not feel inadequate for being in an irresponsible stage but being aware of this effect tells us what what to do next. When we understand The Responsibility Process, we can teach others how the process works, observe their current stage, and suggest how to move to the next stage, if they are ready. However, though we can improve awareness, we must recognize that we can’t force someone to advance.
We can live a more effective life by learning to move faster through the process. When we act with deliberation and responsibility—discovering root causes [see Cause Mapping Session] and testing countermeasures to fix past mistakes and prevent future mistakes—we tend to achieve more, and the people around us do, too. But when we get stuck in a non-responsible stage, not only does the problem remain, but our complaints degrade the effectiveness of others and impede progress. We can ask ourselves, “What stage am I currently in?”, wallow in it if we want, intensely and briefly, and then move quickly to the next stage.
With the awareness of these stages, we can make more thoughtful decisions about our residency, employment, collaborations and friendships. We can observe how rapidly people move through the stages of responsibility, note where they get stuck and consider responsible solutions. How can we best operate responsibly, for ourselves and for them? Sometimes we stay and help, sometimes we involve others and sometimes we run. In taking responsibility for all the outcomes around us, we acknowledge we can choose our fate. No one “makes us” feel or act in ways we don’t like; we control all of that.
Ordinary people that we admire and follow—parents, relatives, colleagues, advocates—are leaders. These leaders can become much more effective, when they demonstrate and teach the stages of responsibility. They achieve more because they and their admirers operate more effectively. By operating from responsibility as much as possible, all leaders can inspire greater trust, attract more admirers, and ultimately become more effective in achieving their desired outcomes.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” —Mark Fields, Ford Motor Company
Organizational culture largely determines whether teams and individuals embrace and sustain collective responsibility. Most good leaders learned from (often spectacular) failures. Good leaders share those experiences to encourage followers to learn from failure rather than hide it. Regrettably, some leaders fear exposure of lurking history limits their career opportunities, and unintentionally create a hostile environment for collective responsibility. Collective responsibility produces an eagerness to explore failure to discover and fix root causes, and this transparency can threaten the uncomfortable and incompetent alike.
When fear interferes with identifying and fixing problems, it can destroy the effectiveness of a person, team or company. Vuori and Quy argue that Nokia’s once-dominant mobile phone business failed due to pervasive fear (Huy 2015). Former Vice Presidents and Directors noted that Nokia’s board and top management were “extremely temperamental” and regularly shouted at people “at the top of their lungs.” Threats of firing or demotion were common. As a result, VPs and Directors avoided bringing bad news and data was altered to avoid offense. This led to poor decision making and ruin.
Trust helps teams accelerate, but trust remains only when the team members prove trustworthy. By developing trustworthiness in our organization, people will more likely take personal responsibility for collective outcomes. The agile community promote trust, because trust implies predictability, predictability reduces worry, and reduced worry frees us to focus on work, wasting less time with followup. However, placing trust in those not trustworthy has led many people and organizations into trouble. Trust must be earned; it is an emergent property of interaction and trustworthiness.
Avery teaches a tit-for-tat trust game to measure commitment and trustworthiness. It starts with us: First we make a small commitment and keep it. To play this game well, we must avoid committing if we could easily fail, but seek to commit to something lesser that advances the goal. Then we ask a partner for an equivalent commitment. If they commit and achieve it, we make a bigger commitment. We keep upping the ante until our partner fails to offer or meet a reciprocal commitment. Exploration using this game helps establishes the types and level of commitment we can expect from colleagues, lovers, relatives and friends. When our partner fails a commitment (and all of us will fail at some point, since the ante keeps increasing), we have established a trustworthiness boundary for our partner.
Collaborative Cause Mapping is a deep, highly-social problem analysis exercise that can increase collective responsibility. In this approach, we meet with colleagues to discover deep causes of a problem. Such deeper causes can be easier to fix than those found through superficial analysis. Superficial analysis is likely to land on one of Avery’s non-responsible spots, which helps no one. In contrast, deep analysis with colleagues often reveals a broader range of causes, which anyone in the room could have prevented. These events, if performed regularly, can create a sense of camaraderie associated with collective responsibility and problem solving.
If we hope to embrace collective responsibility, it will help to redefine the term accountability, People are responsible for an outcome if their actions could have changed it. People’s actions in response to failure are responsible if they respond to prevent its recurrence. For any one situation, several people could be responsible. Accountability, however, is usually limited to a single person or entity, and many people conflate it with singleton responsibility, rendering the notion of collective responsibility confusing.
To support collective responsibility, we must bring the term accountability back to its root meaning, to account, to calculate, and to reckon [see accountability]. With this definition, we can answer, “Who can I ask for the best answer on this question?” So, a Scrum Product Owner is accountable for providing a well-ordered Product Backlog. A ScrumMaster is accountable for providing team historic data to the team and stakeholders. If the ScrumMaster doesn’t have this data, accountability doesn’t imply blame (the non-collective responsibility meaning), but rather that we can expect the ScrumMaster to have an answer for how it will be fixed. All organizations need definitive, well-known sources of information; we cannot rely on all members of a team for this. But organizations don’t need a single person to blame for failures, unless we have a blame culture.
More collaborative problem solving
When team members operate from responsibility most of the time, everyone will likely complete more useful work, and waste less effort. Chronic dysfunctions will likely get resolved faster. You’ll spend less time tiptoeing around sensitive feelings, if people move rapidly through denial, blame, justification and shame. Yes, when people point out problems you might have caused, you’ll get defensive, rationalize and feel guilty. We all continue to do this. But you’ll accelerate through them to find a possible solution and act. Once you know these stages are a natural sequence, you and your colleagues may find the stages amusing, crying out “Blame others!” when someone gets stuck.
How does it feel to understand the stages of responsibility, and to move rapidly out of irresponsible states? After I began to consciously “operate from responsibility,” I became much calmer. When surprise failures occur, I spend little time blaming others, complaining about the circumstances, or feeling ashamed. Instead, I consider how I could have changed to improve the outcome, and how I might avoid similar problems in the future. When I have questions, I ask for help. I call friends, describe problems as objectively as I can, and seek their advice. Previously, I could always blame others, circumstances or my inadequacies, but since it wasn’t under my control, no one could advise me. Now, I won’t allow myself to get stuck in irresponsible states for long.
When the stages of responsibility are well known, you and your colleagues will likely start joking about it. Christopher Avery talks about “blame parties”, where someone says, “OK, just this once I want to not be responsible,” and then launches into a ridiculous, hilarious tirade bemoaning people, the world and themselves for causing a problem. It’s a great way to blow off steam, because operating from responsibility is, well, a little undramatic. Sometimes it’s fun to be (harmlessly) dramatic.
Teaching and learning increases
Team members that embrace collective responsibility teach their specialist skills actively, to create elasticity to meet varying demand. An extraordinary number of problems in large companies lay with over-specialization and the creation of “functional silos.” Collective responsibility draws peoples’ attention to these problems.
Conversely, participants in a collective responsibility culture want to learn skills that will help satisfy episodic high demand, which could risk failure to deliver high value or high quality work. This creates more “T-shaped people,” with deep skills in one area, but acceptable skills in others.
To scale this pattern, and influence more people, leaders should model this pattern for peers and followers. A leader does not demonstrate this problem by taking personal responsibility for the failures of followers; rather the leader demonstrates it by taking responsibility for failures in the leader’s and peers’ joint management. If a peer makes a mistake, the leader works with the peer and others to prevent a similar failure in the future, without blaming the peer. When we find failures, it is best to assume that the process we used is the ultimate cause of the problem, and work to permanently fix the process. Obviously, a “blame culture” inhibits this pattern.
Collective responsibility demands flexible staffing and budgeting, and departmental leaders who are willing to lend a hand (or cash). Companies with strict departmental budgeting inhibit this pattern: departmental silos make it difficult or impossible for a department to consider spending some of its budget to help another, when the corporate outcome would improve as a result. A rich department could claim corporate rules prevented it from solving the company’s problem.
Similarly, departments with strict reporting hierarchies and territorial managers make it difficult for team members to share responsibilities. This is commonly experienced in companies where testers report to one set of Directors and developers report to a different set of Directors. This inhibits testers from taking responsibility for the code quality and developers from taking responsibility for testing. Another common organizational problem is territorial IT Operations and Software Development heads, which hinders full-blown, harmonious DevOps.
I once led an overworked, stressed-out department of 24 user experience (UX) professionals in a company known for highly usable products. Though 24 people is a relatively large UX team, Product Managers desperate for help complained bitterly when we had higher priorities. UX team members were specialists, the only people Product Managers trusted to design user experience flows, to consider information architectures and to perform user experience research. If we remained our company’s only responsible UX talent, we would limit the usability of our products and perpetuate our department’s stress.
We realized we could help the company embrace collective responsibility for good UX, by considering other employees who influence usability: development team members. We added teaching and enablement to our mission. We acknowledged that inevitably front-end (and back-end) developers influenced UX, because the programmatic flow shaped user experience flow. We started teaching UX design principles, inviting developers to participate. We developed user experience templates, with button formats, colors, fonts and guidelines that developers could use themselves. I started strongly recommending that Scrum teams invite stakeholders or customers to run the demos in Sprint Reviews, to create a low-cost UX Research event for every Sprint.
This approach reduced the stress on the UX Department. We felt less constrained to assigning UX staff members evenly among all projects, and started aligning their deployment with corporate priorities. We helped team members learn to apply our templates and provided guidance with UX problems, whether we had an assigned UX staff member or not. I noticed that our team gained greater interest in the company’s economic success. One user experience designer, whose product passions were highly influential, decided to move to a Product Manager role, where she has excelled.
This example highlights the importance of well-aligned goals. What was the best outcome for the company, relative to our department? That we provided a delightful user experience [see Agile Base Pattern: Measure Economic Progress]. With that goal front-and-center, it was easy to realize what could solve our problem.
The Responsibility Process
I once had to shut down a location services startup company, after investing a lot of money and time. We had built a software platform for location-based advertising on mobile phones, certain that there would be both online advertisers with location-based store and GPS phone-equipped consumers, ready to participate. After years of development, in 2006, we started testing the platform to discover that the market wasn’t mature enough to sustain the company; it would be years more before the market could take off.
For a long time, I denied the problem, hearing people express their confusion about what we were doing and how we would make money. Mobile carriers expressed great interest and encouragement, but never offered realistic suggestions of how we would make money.
When I started testing the market, and discovered I would have to wait years for it to mature, I blamed others. Market research firms had published expensive reports describing the many billions soon to be unlocked in location services. In 2001, we were “on the cusp” of GPS enabled phones, according to them. Market researchers, fueled by hyperbole from mobile carriers trying to attract developers, convinced me that this was a worthy market. Should I blame the sleazy researchers or the hyperbolic entrepreneurs? It was certainly one of them. But my company was not going anywhere. It wasn’t my fault, I said.
Then I blamed circumstances. It is the nature of startups that many will fail. Venture capitalists have to follow the fads. Strong mobile carriers control the market. But, did I really have to invest so much to discover these problems?
Then I blamed myself, wallowing in guilt. I wandered around in a funk, obsessed with examining my lack of self-worth. A lot of my family’s savings went into this mess.
Then I embraced obligation. The guilt was gone, but I felt lost, all the while burning capital month after month, keeping a happy face at work. “My employees depend on me, I have to keep paying them.”
It took me a long time to take responsibility for the situation. Because I no longer believed in the company’s target market, I finally started shopping the team around to be employed.
I often review that experience, wishing I had taken responsibility to shut the company down sooner, before I had spent all that cash, squandered all those months, and wallowed in all that guilt, when I could have been much happier doing something else. (Now I am happier, so eventually I must have figured it out!)
- With a colleague who shares your opinion, think about most frustrating situation in your company. For each responsibility stage—denial, blame others, blame circumstances, feel shame, feel obligated, responsibility—explain how you would interpret the situation, and how you might behave as a result. How might the company improve as a result of your behavior in those stages?
- With your colleague, explore how you might jointly encourage collective responsibility in your organization. How do budget constraints, job descriptions, inhibit collective responsibility?
- Explore how you might manage a team, where individuals tend to get stuck in different responsibility stages. What will get done? How can you ensure the project gets done?
- Discuss how you might deal with someone who is stuck in a pre-responsibility stage. Will it be more effective to explain the responsibility process when they are stuck, or at some other time? How can you increase the likelihood that they will advance to a later stage in the process?
- How does trust play a role in operating from responsibility? If we distrust others, our understanding of the circumstances or our own self-control, can we operate from responsibility? Explore some situations.
- Measure Economic Progress
- Collective Code Ownership
The five Agile Base Patterns are described in detail at Senex Rex. See Measure Economic Progress, Proactively Experiment to Improve, Limit Work in Process, Embrace Collective Responsibility and Collaborate to Solve Systemic Problems. Subsequent posts will explore patterns beyond these basics. Subscribe below to be notified when new posts go live.
Christopher Avery and Horia Slușanschi reviewed early drafts of this article, providing great feedback. Avery’s teamwork course and later friendship led to my growing realization that collective responsibility increases agile sustainability.
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