Friday, October 30, 2009

100% Responsibility

If you search the Internet for articles on the concept of 100% responsibility you will find many entries that talk about taking responsibility for your own life, or how managers and leaders are always 100% responsible for the organization's results.  These are good ways to view 100% responsibility, but I don't believe they get to the heart of the true meaning.

This concept was first introduced to me by Robin Reid, an organizational development consultant who worked with my organization in the 1980s (see note below).  As our management team worked through this concept with Robin, there was a great deal of push-back and resistance.  Managers didn't like the concept.  It flew in the face of how they viewed their role in the organization. 

However, in my experience, this concept had a huge impact on me and how I approached my role as an employee, manager, and leader in my organization.

The concept itself is relatively simple:
  • We are all (employees, managers, leaders) 100% responsible for our organization's success, products, and results.  
"How can that be?", I hear you say.  You are thinking, "I am only an employee.  I am not responsible for the final product.  I am not responsible for the output of other departments.  I am not responsible for decisions made by the board, or council.  I am only responsible for my own actions."  And, these statements are, in part, true.

But, consider an extreme situation.  You are in a car that is headed over a cliff.  The driver is oblivious to the problem.  Do you blithely head off into oblivion, or do you pull the hand break? My guess is that you would feel a certain sense of self-preservation (responsibility), and might do something to prevent your ultimate demise.

In this admittedly extreme example, you are a passenger, not the driver.  But, your status as a passenger does not preclude you from acting when the situation calls for it.  The driver has the primary responsibility for the safety of the journey, and this responsibility is not changed in any way by your responsibility as a passenger.  The driver's job is to operate the controls; you cannot operate the controls for the driver.  But, when things begin to go badly, you have the right to express your concern.  You have the right to influence in whatever way you can.  And, in the end, you have a responsibility to act in the best interest of the occupants of the car.

Your expression of concern, and ultimate action, may cause conflict later.  However, there are long term consequences that are important enough to allow for a little conflict.

Responsibility is not something that can be divided easily.  When I am only 50% responsible for the outcome, I can do what I think is proper, and still have the project fail.  I can feel good that my part was done perfectly.  But, if my responsibility stops when I hand off to the next person in the chain, doing my part 100% right is little comfort when the end product is flawed or broken.

I may not be the one who "operates the controls" for all stages of the production or project, but my concern should be similar to that of the passenger in the car.  When things are not going well, I have a duty to participate in getting the system back on track.  My feeling of responsibility does not diminish the responsibility of the other people involved in the project.  Each person is responsible for his or her contribution to the whole.  And, if each person feels ownership in the final product, we are more likely to work as a team, welcome the help of others, and strive for a successful outcome instead of simply the success of one person's portion of the project.

On a deeper level, this acceptance of full responsibility, to be "...accountable for all the implications of our actions [or inactions] grows directly out of accepting the fact of our free will." (Peter Koestenbaum and Peter Block, Freedom and Accountability at Work, P. 78-79)   Responsibility is a choice.  Our choice to speak up when we identify something that requires the attention of others, or to remain silent and tell ourselves that "it wasn't our fault" is exactly that, a choice.  Our decision to speak up does not diminish another person's responsibility to carry out their job in a responsible manner.  But our decision to act expresses our ownership of the result, not just pieces of the system.

A decision to be 100% responsible is something anyone within the organization can make.  And, every time someone makes a decision to be 100% responsible, for ownership of the result, everyone wins.

Note: Robin Reid gives credit to Hyler Bracey, from The Atlanta Consulting Group, for introducing him to the concept of 100% responsibility.  I can find no Internet site for this organization, but I did find a link and reference to Hyler Bracey, author of Managing from the Heart.