There’s no better way to be successful than to hold yourself accountable to the results you’re a part of creating. And not to intermediate results, but the actual end product or service you provide to your customers. In fact, success often entails being responsible for your customer’s success as well as your own.
Many organizations struggle to be successful simply because they slice responsibility up into pieces and hold individuals accountable to intermediate results. Much like the Olympic torch is passed around the world, with each individual responsible for carrying it for their part of the journey. Once the torch is passed on, it’s no longer that person’s responsibility.
When this happens in business, and in other aspects of life, this can cause problems because individuals are only accountable to intermediate results. Unlike a journey around the world, work is often split up unnecessarily just because that’s the way things are always done. Sure a huge endeavor, like carrying a torch around the world, may necessitate breaking things up. But that doesn’t mean things always need to be broken up. Or more importantly, that we can’t re-arrange how we work to avoid breaking things up.
When responsibility is divvied up, results tend to be delayed. Each person downstream must wait for the person they depend upon to get the torch to them. When the torch arrives, if they are busy, the torch may sit waiting. The more a journey is split up, the greater the delay.
If something goes wrong along the way, things have to be sent back to where they came from to be repaired. If someone upstream damaged the torch, it may have to be sent back to that person to fix it. Of course this isn’t the case with the torch in reality, but you could imagine manufacturing a car, if the frame was damaged, someone down the line wouldn’t be able to repair it. They may have to yank the car frame and take it back up the line, or discard it. Problems tend to take as long to propagate back through the chain of responsibility as they took to propagate through it.
People down the line tend to be the ones that validate and inspect the quality of the work that’s done. It’s typical to have QA after something is built, not during. That means something must be built, probably fully constructed, before anyone checks if even the smallest of problems exist. This greatly delays finding out about problems, which adds unnecessary risk. Over time, the people that are responsible for building tend not to validate much because that responsibility is relegated to another individual down the line. The results are disastrous. Think about what it means when the person building something isn’t responsible for the quality of their work.
Due to disjoint responsibilities, people will tend to work out of sync. Work ends up backing up at each point of hand-off. You could imagine a pile of torches waiting to be picked up at each spot where a torch is handed off. You could imagine each intermediate responsibility belonging to a person or group of individuals that run torches from point A to B, another set of individuals are responsible from B to C, etc. Until finally the torch arrives at the destination. In business, the destination is hopefully providing value to a customer.
Because people work out of sync, at each point of hand off, there tends to be a sense of us versus *them.” When things go wrong, blame is common. That’s because individuals see their responsibility within the narrow confines of their part of the journey. They don’t see their responsibility, rightfully so, as delivering the final result. Therefore their responsibility doesn’t align with the success of the organization. When something goes wrong, the thought process is “who messed up and let’s make sure we’re not blamed.” Instead of the more productive: “what are we going to do about our problem.”
The chain of responsibility causes delay, defects, raises risks, leads to people working out of sync, leads to us versus them, a lack of team work and blame.
Fortunately, avoiding this is rather straight forward. Coalesce responsibilities into one team. Have them work together on one thing at a time, one outcome. Have them run together and trade off carrying the torch. It may seem counter intuitive but you’re much more likely to get the torch to its destination.
If the work is overwhelming for the organization, slice responsibility based on disjoint outcomes. For example, if you have several torches to carry. Put several teams together and have each one be responsible for carrying their own torch.
If people are collectively responsible for the outcome, to the results that you deliver to your customer, there will be many benefits. Delay is much less likely because you have the full attention of everyone, focused on carrying one torch at a time. QA happens in sync with the creation of a product or the execution of a service. Problems will surface sooner and be dealt with more effectively. This lowers risk. People will tend to think in terms of our problems and our successes instead of their problems and my problems. There will be a shared sense of responsibility. People will succeed, or fail, together.