13.3.08

Best Practice - Responsibility

This is one for the managers...

I generally don't like "military" structure, but there is some wisdom in military chain-of-command. After all, the management techniques of armies have progressed in iterative and linear fashion for thousands of years. Corporations have been around less time. So maybe we can learn something from military chain of command.

Here's a paraphrase of something I heard recently, on an episode of the TV show Frontline. Apparently this is something that every commanding officer in every branch of the military has drilled into his or her brain from day-1.

You can delegate authority. You can not delegate responsibility.

That has profound implications to managing any team, and is generally a hard lesson for young managers. In the difficult and politically charged landscape of managing global teams, this truth is even more important to understand.

When I have picked apart failed or mediocre global or outsourced teams, I often hear managers describe the problem in words like "They screwed up." The "they" in that sentence is usually the offshore staff. I've already written at length about how "Us / Them" thinking and language destroys teams. Now lets talk about how "Us / Them" thinking and language destroys managers.

When a manager says "They screwed up" what's really being said is something like this:
  • I delegated authority for some aspect of the work for which I was responsible.
  • The team received the authority and acted.
  • I didn't pay particular attention to what they were doing, because they're supposed to be good at that stuff.
  • They failed.
  • I refuse to accept responsibility for their failure.
  • It's their fault, not mine.
  • So you can't blame me.
Sorry. Management doesn't work that way.

I have some sympathy for this manager. Far too often in this business people are promoted to management for the wrong reasons:
  • Do they have a deep and abiding wish to build great teams? No. Not so much.
  • Are they willing or eager to accept responsibility for the performance of a group of people? No. Not that either.
  • Are they really smart? Usually.
  • Are they great individual contributors? Almost certainly.
  • Have they "been around the longest"? Sadly, sometimes yes.
Perhaps it's no surprise then, that neomanagers shirk the fundamental responsibility of their station. I don't think our industry really teaches that responsibility is the core of management. And I've been in the business for a long time, and it was a Frontline TV documentary on war-crime tribunals in Serbia that exposed me to this simple truth about what it means to command, or in corporate parlance, to manage.

In closing, the actionable best practice here is:
  • If you are a manager, understand that you may delegate your authority. You may allow your team to act with autonomy. But you are still responsible for the work product of everyone who reports through you.
  • If you don't like that, or if you don't want to accept responsibility for the work product of your team, you should change jobs immediately.

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