The steps to responsibility

Bob Marshall stated on Twitter “More and more, from many directions, it seems ever more bizarre to blame people (individuals) for things that happen (or don’t).”

Christopher Avery’s research, building on work by Bill McCarley, Marshall Thurber and Werner Earhart, has learned that, bizarre or not, it is completely natural. As human beings, we have a hard-wired natural series of responses when any upset comes along, and we stop at the first which we’re comfortable with. But only if we reach Responsibility are we truly able to deal with it as well as possible.

The responsibility process - Blame->Justify->Shame->Obligation->(Quit)->Responsibility

The responsibility process

The first response is to find someone to Blame.  Someone – anyone. Not us, anyway.  If we can blame someone else, it’s not our problem, so we don’t have to do anything about it. The trouble is, we don’t do anything about it – it’s not helpful and while it may be more comfortable for us, it doesn’t solve the problem.

If we can get past Blame, we try to Justify why it’s not our fault – we blame the system instead. “It’s not my fault – that’s just the way it is. There’s nothing I can do about it.” Deming taught that 95% of variation is down to the system rather than the individuals – which is probably the point Bob was trying to make in his tweet. However, blaming the system doesn’t solve the problem either, it just gives us a reason not to do anything about it.

So, we’ve got past Blame and we’ve got past Justify. What next?  Well, the mind concludes it’s obviously not something external – let’s blame ourself. We land in Shame. “I’m useless. It’s my fault. It’s no wonder it happened, I’m always doing this.” So at least we’re recognising we have some involvement, but we’re still not solving the problem. It doesn’t solve anything to blame ourselves, just (again) gives us a convenient reason for not solving it.

If we can get past that and stop wallowing in self-pity, we get to Obligation. “Oh well, I suppose I’ve got to do it. But I don’t want to – he’s making me, I have to.” Society would have it that this is what we should do. After all, we’re getting it done, we’re solving the problem. But we’re not solving it well. In this state of mind we look for the quickest fix, the simplest answer that will alleviate the pain. It’s a step forward, but it’s not where we want to be.

We’re nearly there, though. If we can get past Obligation, and actually choose to deal with it properly, we finally reach a state which Christopher calls Responsibility. Here we’re choosing to take ownership of the problem and deal with it properly. We’ll look for root causes and try to address the problem once and for all. We’ll take pride in doing a good job.

Liz Keogh, in her keynote on respect in Lean Agile Scotland 2012, gave a story which illustrates the difference between Obligation and Responsibility really well.  Watch the video – she makes some great points about respect, describing it as taking the time to look again and offer choice. This particular story starts at about 8:37. She was working with a team who were stuck not delivering anything, so they decided to concentrate on getting one area working and release that then move on to the next. So they come to the stand-up one day, and one developer says “I’ve done [my task]. Not that it matters, because there are all these problems in another area that I’m not allowed to fix.” Classic Obligation.

So after the stand-up, Liz went to talk to the developer about it. She found out he had such pride in his work he couldn’t bear the fact there were problems in it. So she made him an offer. Since it was clearly bothering him so much it was affecting his work, she was willing to let him go away and fix these problems – which didn’t affect the release they were trying to get out but nevertheless bothered him – if it would make him more productive overall.

“No, it’s alright,” he said, “let’s leave it and get on with the release.” And because HE had made the decision, he was happy – he was working from Responsibility.

A couple of examples might help illustrate how natural The Responsibility Process and series of reactions are. These come from discussions about it with my children.

Example 1 (from my son). He knocks his glass of water off the table.

Blame: Who put that glass there?  It’s a silly place.
Justify: It’s not my fault – these glasses aren’t stable enough. There’s no space on the table.
Shame: I’m rubbish – I’m always knocking the glasses over. I just can’t keep my hands under control.
Obligation: I’ve got to control myself, hold myself back. I’m not allowed to express myself freely with my arms in case I knock the glass over.
Responsibility: If I put the glass further from the edge of the table, I won’t knock it over any more. Problem solved!

Example 2 (from my daughter). She has a lot of homework to get done.

Blame: My teacher gives me too much homework – there’s no way I can get through it all.
Justify: I’ve got too much on. I don’t have time to do my homework.
Shame: I’m rubbish. I just can’t do this. There’s no way I can do my homework.
Obligation: Okay, I’ll do my homework because I’ve got to. (But she can’t settle properly to it and keeps getting distracted and doesn’t get it done).
Responsibility: When I get my homework, I’ll plan out when in the week I can do it and spread it out. That way it won’t seem so much, and I won’t be left with a huge amount to do at the weekend. I’ll track how I’m doing and I’ll tick off each bit as I get it done (celebrating success – another important element from Christopher’s teaching).

This is all very nice, and a lovely model. But how does it help in practice? Well, if you can catch yourself on one of the islands (as Christopher calls them), you can consciously confront the reaction and move away from it, move on towards choosing to take ownership of your response, towards choosing to do a good job, towards Responsibility. And Responsibility can be a painful place, but it’s the only place that really solves the problem properly.

Which island do you like best? Where do you tend to land? I used to be very good at Blame and Justify…until my wife got even better at pricking and deflating my justifications. For some reason I never really bought into Shame, but I now very much have a tendency to land on Obligation and stay there. Which is not a nice state to be in. I don’t feel in control, and it’s plenty stressful. Now I understand The Responsibility Process™, I can catch myself in Obligation and

  1. Ask myself if it really needs to be done. If the job itself is unpleasant, is there a higher purpose which it serves? For example, cleaning out the cat litter tray is never pleasant, but we want to have cats and we don’t want them going anywhere else, so it’s definitely worth cleaning it out.
  2. Having decided that it does need to be done, I can take ownership of it and have identified the benefits, so it’s a lot easier to do it well.

It’s an ongoing process, but I choose to follow it…

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4 Responses to The steps to responsibility

  1. Pingback: Lean Agile Scotland 2013 | Badger Taming

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