Responsibility is a virus

February 10, 2014

Read time 1 min

Traditional project management literature will tell you how important it is to define roles and responsibilities at the beginning of a project. If something goes wrong, it’s because it wasn’t on someone’s list of responsibilities and needs to be added. If something is accidentally omitted, we need to make someone responsible.

It’s not just projects, the same applies to organizations. Traditionally, it’s very important to make sure our organization is aware of the division of responsibilities. Every area of responsibility needs a single wringable neck. And so management becomes a game of making sure anything that can happen is on someone’s list of responsibilities.

The urge to always make someone responsible is a result of our fear of uncertainty. Of course, defining responsibilities does not take away that uncertainty, it merely hides it. We can’t achieve certainty since the world around us keeps changing, but we’ll settle for a false sense of certainty rather than accept the uncertainty.

Trying to make someone responsible also displays an inability to distinguish between accountability and responsibility. When people are accountable, they’ll do things to avoid being punished. Accountability can be assigned. When people are responsible, they’ll do things because they feel those things are worth doing. Responsibility is always intrinsic and can not be assigned.

When misunderstood and misused, responsibility is a virus. Don’t decide on roles and responsibilities. Create a context in which no one can say ‘It’s not my responsibility’ and let responsibility emerge.

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