Am I Responsible For This Mess?

joe —  Sat 30-Jul-11

Kids MessI spent time this week with my boss and peers reviewing a difficult situation that we had to face. I am betting that you have had a similar circumstance – one where many people over a long period of time have made many mistakes that now culminate into one much more difficult problem. You really can’t point at one person and say this is why we are here today.

At the end of the conversation my boss looked at us and asked

“On a scale of 1-10 how responsible are we for this mess?”

I was a little surprised when I heard numbers like two, three and four. Granted this problem goes back many years and I have only been on it for the past year but I didn’t think any answer other than 10 was correct.

Then it dawned on me that we had a different understanding of what the word responsible meant. The others had interpreted it to be in the past tense as in “How much did we contribute to this problem?” My definition of responsible is in the future, “Who is going to take ownership and respond to it?”

5 StarIf the purpose of the exercise was to do a root cause analysis so that we would not repeat these mistakes, clearly their definition was dead on. More often than not the question of who is responsible, especially when it comes from a superior, is really who owns this and who is going to change this?

It was my project so that would be me with a score of 10.

What surprised me more is that even after it was explained why I provided a 10 few seemed to agree that is what was meant by the question. What is it about that simple question that allows us to interpret the intention so differently? Why was I in the vast minority?

I think the root of it come from our natural view of time. I believe that everyone has a concept of today that is defined by ether the past or the future. We either see today as the result of yesterday or today as the beginning of tomorrow. Today EquationIn the grand equation of life, today is either on the left or the right of the equal sign.

I am very much someone that sees today on the left side of the equation. I know everyone does eventually, but it is my first instinct to see tomorrow before I analyze yesterday. So when my boss asks who is responsible – if it is my project then I am, regardless of when I came into the picture. In my mind “who is responsible” is a question about the future not a retrospect.

I wish our congressmen felt the same way.