Sunday, May 31, 2015

Whose job? On self-organized teams and responsibility

Basically this boils down to the statement that in my opinion there is a big difference between everybody being responsible for everything and everybody being responsible for the whole thing – and only the latter works.

The old story of four people

I once read a story about some people called Somebody, Anybody, Everybody and Nobody.

They where supposed to complete some Job that had to be completed somehow – let's not worry about details here.

It was a Job Anybody could have done – but Everybody thought Somebody would do while in the end Nobody did it.

While this is a cute little play on words, it –unfortunately– is also a phenomenon observable in peoples behavior. In his book „The Tipping Point“ Malcolm Gladwell quotes an experiment where a person in distress called out for help in two different environments. A densely populated area and a sparsely populated area.
The alarming –but understandable– result was that in the densely populated area everybody thought that somebody else would do something and so nothing happened for quite a while. In the sparsely populated are the reaction was quite different. This phenomenon has been dubbed the “bystander effect” a long time ago.

Who is responsible in a team?

Recently this question has been brought up in the context of Scrum teams, but it really applies to all kinds of teams.

You are not responsible for everything

The notion, that everybody on the team should be able to do everything and whenever a problem arises every team member should be able to fix it is not only unrealistic, the whole idea is counterproductive to the overall performance of the team. A team –as described for example in an article by R. K. Grigsby– is a group of people with complementary skills [who are mutually accountable and share a common goal].
Now, can you imagine a soccer team with all players being equally well suited for all positions? How high is the probability that such a team would have the worlds best goalie? Or the worlds best offensive? So clearly there have to be some areas of specialization –while still maintaining some skills in all the other areas– if you want to have the best team possible. But when the skills are not evenly distributed, neither can the responsibility.

You are responsible for the whole thing

But every team-member should be responsible for the whole. That is quite a difference. While I might not be able to perform a database change that is necessary for my new code I can still try a number of options to make sure that the system stays in good shape. I might track down a team member with the prerequisite knowledge. I might hold back my changes until I find some database genius on the team to pair with. I might find another design. If all else fails I might try to stop the line.
But I don't just do my part and move on and rely on the team to fix it because "the team is responsible to fix whatever goes wrong."

Let's not confuse self-organization with anarchy – self-organized on a team level means that the organization comes from within the team. Not from the outside. But this does not mean that everybody just does what they feel like. If the agreement is that Scott has the final say on database decisions, and whenever there is a decision about cryptography either Alice or Bob have to agree with it, then that may be the choice of the team, but it still is an organization that applies. And if anybody strays from those agreements –without negotiating them new– this betrays the mutual accountability within the team.

Therefore, in teams everybody is responsible. Yes. But for the whole, according to their specific capabilities. And it is a question of team organization how the team members act on this shared responsibility.

And remember "responsibility can never be assigned, it can only be assumed".

till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

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