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Owning the problem

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I am going to write today about the topic of responsibility.

This is a difficult post to write because I really want to avoid coming across in a self-righteous way. I know that I have that weakness – it is very easy for me to step into a hyper-critical, hyper-intellectual mode; and the result is that other people feel criticised, patronised and so on.

But responsibility feels so important to me that I think I need to take that risk. When I say it feels so important, I mean that when I think about it I almost shake with emotion, which is both scary and exciting. But that also triggers warning bells – is that self-righteousness bubbling up?

And is that self-righteousness just a mask for deeper feelings of inadequacy – in my own attitudes and behaviour? How often do I take real responsibility myself?

But what can I do about that – other than write and see where it  leads? After all I write mainly for my own edification. So here goes.

In the companies where I work, I usually place great stress on the definition of roles and responsibilities. I think this is a fairly normal thing to do – don’t most people believe that role definitions, or role specifications, are one of those important bits of HR “stuff” that every company needs?

But I am generally very against “HR” (something I might discuss elsewhere). So why the emphasis on this bit of paperwork that in so many cases is written and then filed away never to be looked at again?

I think it’s because of responsibility. The kind of role definition I like contains a statement of purpose, a list of responsibilities, and one or two other important things. What I am trying to achieve by encouraging people to write and take responsibility for a clear role definition is to add a vital anchor, an anchor that makes it possible to operate in a “sea of change”.

I like organisations where there is a lot of personal and organisational freedom. A lot of flexibility. I think this is essential for creativity and resilience to emerge. Free and flexible organisations also allow a lot of error and conflict, and more worryingly, it is possible for things to fall through the gaps.

For me clear role definition provides stability and context. But only under certain conditions. Only when people take their responsibility seriously. What does that mean?

For example, I can imagine the situation where someone is asked to keep costs “within budget”. And the response to that is to follow the instruction to the letter of the law.

Most of us can do that – work to rule when we want to. “Did you do the shopping?” “Yes, I went to the shops.”

But did you really do the shopping? Doing the shopping, at least in my house, isn’t about going to the shops. Doing the shopping is about ensuring that there is enough healthy, nutritious, delicious and varied food in the house for the next few days. This is what my wife and I have agreed “doing the shopping” means.

I can easily say “Yes, I went to the shops”, but return with no bread, no milk, no fruit. Or the bread can be stale, the fruit tasteless, and so on.

So for me, taking responsibility isn’t about working to rule. It’s not about saying “Yes, the expenditure is within budget”.

It’s about first determining what that phrase “within budget” means.

And it usually means something much broader: the expenditure is an excellent investment, won’t limit the growth and development of the company, is one of a small number of absolute top priorities and so on.

Taking responsibility is about considering the whole picture, thinking laterally, considering and reducing risks (the supermarket might be closed; I’ll go to the farmers’ market instead), and being very proactive: taking steps to constantly improve (I know the family will eventually get bored with the same old fare; what can I do to liven things up?) .

But that makes it sound very intellectual. It’s more than that. It’s a gut thing. It’s about “owning” the responsibility in a very personal, visceral, scary, exciting and deep way. It’s about connecting deeply with the emotions that come with the responsibility.

It’s about leading not managing. About an ethical position too: doing the right thing. As well as doing things right.

In this view of responsibility nothing – and I mean absolutely nothing – will stop the achievement of the aimed-for result.

Do I always achieve that myself? No, of course not. That’s where there’s a risk of self-righteousness.

But I do think this form of real responsibility, and the accountability that goes with it, is really worth striving for. In fact, it’s absolutely essential to making an organisational model based on distributed leadership work.

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Author: Pete Burden

Strategy, Leadership and Organisational Coach I am an experienced strategy, leadership and organisational coach. I work with the MDs of purpose-led businesses - people using the freedom, flexibility, and practicality of business to disrupt the world in positive ways.

2 thoughts on “Owning the problem

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Responsibility matters because of the satisfaction we feel when things we’re responsible for go right – and when we put things right after they’ve gone wrong. My first concern when devising an action plan for companies is to figure out who gets the blame if (when?) things go wrong, and who gets the credit when they go right. That probably sounds horribly old-fashioned and negative, but it really helps if people know precisely what they’ll have to carry the can for. It also helps stop that sense of free-floating anxiety and the frantic back-covering that goes on in the wake of a mistake or a disappoinment, or the jockeying for ownership in the wake of a success. A lack of clarity actually benefits toadies and backstabbers and holds back the genuinely productive.

    A former colleague of mine once joined a design company with a “collegiate” approach to responsibility, in a senior role. She never discovered what she was actually responsible for, but when she tried to take responsibility for something, inviolable demarcation lines would mysteriously appear. Needless to say, the place was a hotbed of internal politicking and she left ASAP.

    If you ask the question “but which of us is responsible for x?” and receive the response, “It doesn’t really matter – I’m sure you can sort it out between you” my advice would be to run!

  2. And I forgot to mention, Peter, that at least some of my attitudes to responsibility (no doubt the cuddlier ones) are probably a direct result of working with you!

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