What it means to be responsible for part of a product?

In a previous post we talked about Responsibility trumping Management. We had some good feedback and debate happening around the topic on social channels. One of our twitter followers invoked the question “Define responsibility”.  We thought this was such a relevant question and a good indication that people are intrigued by the idea of shifting the idea of the typical “manager” and instead replacing the onerous of responsibility.

Let’s start with an open admission. I have never been a manager in the typical sense. I have worked for many people and have led teams in the figurative sense – there was no “leading” necessary. I have worked with managers that I thought were beyond fantastic leaders, in fact one of them is on the board at CluedIn, but I have predominantly worked with managers that were not.

Now that the scene is set, like any good debate, I am taking the side of “for responsibility” and kindly invite others to take the “management” side. I would like to re-iterate that our main intention is not to fire all managers, it is to shift the industries idea of what we need in todays organizations.

What is responsibility to me?

Responsibility is an interesting combination of risk, skill, confidence, passion and ownership. I am sorry to sound blunt, but responsibility means that if someone thinks your work is bad then you are responsible for making it bad.  It means that if people think your work is great then you are responsible for it being good and in turn, the continued effort to make it (for lack of a better word) more good. If you can’t then you pass on the rein to someone who is willing to take that responsibility on. In fact I would go as far to say that lack of responsibility is one of the differentiators between a company that innovates and one that follows others. Although this sounds like a negative tone, it is definitely not implied, rather it is an attempt (feeble or not) to show that real innovation comes from those that push boundaries. Do you think Steve Jobs did everything? No. Of course not. He often mentions it in many of his famous talks of how much responsibility and ownership he gave to people. It doesn’t take much searching to find as well that all his co-workers talk of him being extremely harsh and direct. These are simply the side-effects of giving responsibility. We can’t forget that all of them go on to mention that this was a big reason they were able to achieve so much in their careers.

But there is another important detail that must not go unnoticed. The responsible party also must be the party that will actually fix things if they break. This doesn’t mean making someone responsible who will pass on the message.

This is NOT the same thing.

In fact it is quite the opposite. Instead of making someone responsible, you are making no-one responsible. It does not matter if people can point fingers when things go sour, to a boss it still doesn’t give full control over where the problem laid. The team will point at the manager, the manager will point at the team and the boss will point at the manager and the team. You have now on your hands a spaghetti mix of responsibility where everyone is responsible and no-one is responsible. But this is simply not the truth – there is and can be a clear responsible party. It is admirable for a manager or a boss to think “well, this is my fault that this happened”, but the fact is…it isn’t (their fault that is).

Sure, it is a huge risk to ask an individual or team to take ownership of part of a product and then run with it. I hope we are not giving over the idea that this is what we think is a good idea. Rather, giving people responsibility and having them incrementally demonstrate that what they are producing is sound. So I leave you with this thought.

Is the problem that giving people responsibility is too risky for a business or is it rather a reflection that potentially your hiring and recruitment techniques were not solid enough to find the right type of people for the job?


Tim Ward

Founder, Developer and Loudest Employee at CluedIn.