Am I Responsible For This Mess?

joe —  Sat 30-Jul-11 — 19 Comments
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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.

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  • Mark

    There’s “responsible” and “accountable”, which, to my mind, are different (though sometimes more than they should be).  In some cases, I think we spend too much time on “responsible” and not enough on “accountable” — agree that this certainly seems to be the case in DC at the moment.

    • http://thestrandedstarfish.com Joe Kleinwaechter

      I like the distinction, Mark. Interestingly enough the dictionary on the Mac indicates accountable is a synonym to responsible. I think accountable is a more precise term and responsible is wider as is demonstrated in the comments received.

  • James Cribb

    I definitely see today as the result of yesterday when it comes to responsibilities for the past.  What is interesting though is that I actually find myself on both sides of the equation depending of the part of my daily life.  At work I am definitely on the left side always looking how to fix a past issue/problem or find an excuse to give the warm and fuzzy that it will never happen again.  I believe this has to do with the fact that I am a staff engineer and not a manager.  I work more in the mode of repairing, maintaining, and upgrading.  I feel that if my professional position were more in a lead or managerial role I would and should be at least balanced on the equation or more towards the right; analyzing past issues, implement process to prevent, and continuous improvement.  Now for my personal life I fell that I am always on the right side of the equation.  I am always looking at ways to better myself as a person, a Christian, a husband, and a father.  I look at how I have handled past mistakes and problems and always try to look to the right of the equation and see how I can improve and prevent something from being labeled as a mistake.  I am not trying to sound perfect but Christ tells us not to dwell on the past but to focus on a growing relationship with him.  In the end this will allow us to overcome problems/scars of the past and become a better person and follower of Christ.

  • Uma Kandaswamy

    Oh How I wish everybody feels this way and work towards tomorrow to be less messier :)

  • Rich Taylor

    Interesting thoughts Joe.  I’m always excited when I get expanded insight into a word that I have been assuming was clear to all – thanks!

    • http://thestrandedstarfish.com Joe Kleinwaechter

      Thanks Rich. I really never thought about it myself until this week’s events.

  • Paul

    i disagree with your interpretation Joe. 

    “On a scale of 1-10 how responsible are we for this mess?”  to me means how responsible are we for GETTING INTO this mess?  i believe you are interpreting it as how responsible are we for GETTNING OUT OF this mess.

    i believe a more important source of misinterpretation is “we” in that, perhaps some in the room weren’t involved at all when the ‘mess’ began.  so the current “we” may have had little portion of the responsibility (decisions, missteps, etc.) for getting into the mess.

    • http://thestrandedstarfish.com Joe Kleinwaechter

      I think that is how my peers judged the question as well. Actually no one in the room was involved when the mess began. I’m not sure which is what he was trying to ask but I was the only one that had to explain my answer.

      I think what was fascinating to me was that my peers and I had two different instant interpretations.. One that I feel focuses on where we are today versus one that focuses on where we go from here.

      • Paul

        have to say thanks for your article though for expanding my viewpoint, because like phil, i now see it both ways, including ‘how responsible are we for OWNING this mess now, and dealing with it?’ and that answer is clearly 10!

        • http://thestrandedstarfish.com Joe Kleinwaechter

          Good point. I just realized that everyone answered the question immediately without asking what he meant by it, including myself. Hmm…

          • Paul

            many times people are afraid to ask the boss “what do you mean?” lol

          • Paul

            ugh, seems you cant delete comments, so they’re out of order – my second one there “many times people are…” was added first.

          • Paul

            although HOW one asks is important.  asking ‘what do you mean’ sounds a bit challenging.
            maybe “it seems there’s two ways to answer that, (explain) … were you asking in one of these contexts or have i misunderstood?”

  • Phil Garner

    I easily  see it both ways.

    At the end of the day, whomever is at the helm has to come up with a solution to get out of said mess (and hopefully how to prevent said mess from happening again (resulting in a root cause analysis)).

    In dealing with various companies, there have been a few times when the end user experience is dismal and I have to ask how this came to be and how they got there.

    The company as a whole is responsible and sometimes it is difficult for a specific group to get over the hurdles due to ‘corporate policies’ that shackle and limit the choices given. At that point, it takes a someone to try to push through the red tape and achieve the goal.

  • Michael Hughes

    Your observation “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?” is sanguine at best. My reaction was “Joe, bless your heart” :-) Most employees would interpret the question as accusatory. Look at your illustration and imagine the mother coming in as saying “Who is responsible for this mess?” Do you think any of the kids would think she was asking “Who will clean this up?”

    • http://thestrandedstarfish.com Joe Kleinwaechter

      Mike – I think that often the person asking the question is unsure. This is the chance for the person responding to anchor the answer to the positive future than the negative past.

      One of the main reasons Mom asks “who is responsible for this mess” is
      to determine who is going to clean it up and make things right. Granted
      she does want to know how it happened but ultimately her first goal is
      to get things back to where they need to be.

      If you assume that ultimately both questions need to be answered, why
      not lead with the answer that demonstrates resolution. There will always
      be time to analyze how you got into the mess in the first place.

  • Ron Mexico

    I have to use a football analogy here, but it fits perfectly.  Mike Vick, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Joe Montana, or anybody else fumbles the ball.  Then you pick it up.  It doesn’t matter what happened before you got that ball.  The QB could have just laid it on the ground.  Once that ball is in you hand you only have one job:  Take that thing as far down the field as you can and score.  You don’t ask how you got it.  You don’t sit there and stare at it.  All that matters at that point is the job you do after you get it.