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wtorek, 4 marca 2014

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Task-doing vs. responsibility taking - a subtle distinction

I have been reading a book on a fathership recently (yep, tech guys also read such books:-)) and there has been a discussion about responsibility. Even when fathers devote their time to spending time with children and doing some tasks related to children and family they may still don't take responsibility for it. So you can take your children to doctor when they are sick, bring them to school or kindergarten everyday, go with them to a playground... and still not taking responsibility.

How come?

Because responsibility is not about doing (at least in a first place), it is about having in mind what you are responsible for and taking care for it (ie. anticipate and respond to the situation).

Common! Fuzzy? A little bit :-)

Let's go back to the children example. You may go to doctor because your partner told you to do it ("Honey, I have an important meeting in the morning, please go with Kate to doctor"). This is just a task. If you accomplish it (or you can't for some reason - for example doctor is not available today), you are done. Now it is again your partner's worry. She still has to think about it. You have just done you task. To take responsibility is to think about the subject of responsibility (to have in mind) . Example: As a father I proactively think what to do when my child is sick (organize a medical appointment, a babysitter or go to a sick leave) and in longer term to remember about immunization, important dates etc. Then you can tell you take responsibility for your children's health. It is more about thinking and being aware than doing (which is also important after all).

Ok. But what does it have in common with my team? Many leaders want folks in team be responsible (and what is funny they are not able to define what it means).

In business context we very often use the word responsibility mostly in context of a task. "You are responsible for this task", what usually means: do it from the beginning to the end. But in such situations it is much like going with child to a doctor. It is task-doing and not responsibility-taking - for your team, process, product. Being responsible just for tasks makes folks passive, creates the illusion they have no impact on what is happening around you, that the "others" decide. And then they feel powerless and their work becomes boring. It takes juice of life out of you. Who likes it? Hands up!

What to do in real life:

  • If you are a leader: Discuss with  your team what "responsibility" means. Create your own definition. It is unique because of your different expectations and past experiences.
  • If you are a leader: Create environment where people can are encouraged to take responsibility (and not only for task-doing): let people estimate, let people choose task they do (according to priorities), let people influence the way they work (through retrospectives) etc.
  • If you are a team member: Suggest such discussion in a team. Discuss difference between task-doing and responsibility taking and how it harms you.

To sum up let's define what responsibility means when applied to different "things":

  • task responsibility - doing the task from the beginning to the end, anticipating problems and proactively looking for solutions when problems arise; it is situation when nobody else have to take care of the task (unless it is shared task);
  • team, process responsibility - being aware of what is happening in the team/process and proactively looking for ways to improve the way it works (yep, in my opinion it is not only team leader job); look for ideas, improvements, experiments, insights, questions that can influence what is now;
  • product responsibility - consciously, sometimes critically looking at a product evolution, look for ideas and express them (and it is not only your Product Owner's job).  
To clarify: take a context into account, because sometimes you may be just a small planet at the edge of Milky Way (let me emphasize: SOMETIMES).


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