Shirking Responsibility

March 16, 2008 by
Filed under: Leadership, People 

It is all too predictable. Whenever my son and daughter are playing together, it is only a matter of time before I hear raised voices and one of them, if not both, will come to me complaining about something the other one did (this could potentially be a long spring break). I’ve settled into a response that usually works quite well: to ask them to consider their contribution to the situation. What is most fascinating about this is how often a similar dance occurs in the business world.

Whenever a relationship goes sour, even a little bit, there are two sides of the story. It is human nature to pay most attention to the details as they are seen from our perspective, often to the point where we are blind to the idea that there even can be another perspective at all. Those details, from our perspective, usually will suggest that we have been wronged, that our actions were innocuous. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case. Here are a couple of interesting examples, based on working with clients using our diagnostic product over the years.

The first case comes from a group that performs better than most of the teams I have worked with. While not always performing to that level, they have dramatically improved over the years, to the point where they are quite a strong example of the effectiveness of conscious focus on practical implementation of reasonable practices and continuous improvement. They are also one of the few companies that has been successful at leveraging outsourced resources, by carefully managing subcontractor performance. Indeed, they are able to do so only because they are one of the few companies that has a quantified handle on their own performance.

Running the diagnostic with this group, we split the responses so that we could compare the development team to the test team, and both to the outsourced team in India. The question we always start out with is to get people to identify, from a list, their major sources of pain. In this case, the strongest response from the development and test teams was that their subcontractors were causing the most pain. Interestingly, for the group in India, it was the customer that caused the greatest spike in responses. For a group where everyone acknowledged one of the strongest outsourcing relationships around, there were certainly some remaining challenges to deal with, and both sides perceived that it was the other side that was the challenge.

The second case is with another company located only a short distance away from the first group physically, but almost diametrically opposed to them in terms of performance. This group had been struggling for some time to deliver quality product, and had literally been spending the lion’s share of their time dealing with client-reported issues. Here, when asked about their greatest issues, the interesting responses came from a selection called ‘other’, where respondents could answer in freeform text. While the technical people indicated there were issues that they could deal with, such as a need to do more testing or a lack of understanding of the user’s needs, management responses fell into a different category. All their responses indicated that the problem was outside of their sphere of influence: the war in the Middle East, the weakening economy, the weakening US dollar (this, mind you, was several years ago). With that attitude, all they could do was throw up their arms in despair.

Unfortunate, because there really was quite a bit they could have done to better manage their circumstances.

Whether we are refining our already strong performance and dealing with relatively minor tweaks, or battling stronger demons in a fight for survival, it is in our best interests to be able to step back when we look at our issues to include our own contributions as part of the mix. If we look at all the respondents to the diagnostic to date, 27% have indicated that their customers were a significant issue they had to deal with. While we could look at that and suggest that those customers were indeed an issue, we could also step back and consider that perhaps there were things we could do to better manage that relationship.

In any challenged relationship, there is always something that we could have done differently. The fact that we are in the midst of such a struggle should give us pause to consider our own behaviors. Indeed, one of the most powerful tools I can bring to work with clients is often a mirror. – JB

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