Responsibility, authority, and insanity
So this is pretty basic. But it’s huge.
Problem: You are working at a bank and have been tasked with developing a new customer care program. You’re making good progress, and reach out one day to a colleague for their ideas. Word of the meeting gets around, and an executive walks into your office one day, assuming you’re floundering, and tells you what to do.
Problem: Your second grader is in trouble at school. Teachers and other parents call you on the phone, asking you to fix the problem. You are starting to develop some good ideas and making plans. But one day, the school principal makes the decision to move your child to a special classroom.
Problem: You work on an automobile assembly line. Your bonus depends on the quality of the cars you help to build. You see a problem with a welding machine which would cost $100 to fix. But management won’t approve the repair.
What’s the common pattern here? It’s responsibility without authority: a good recipe for insanity.
Think about the actions you take as dominos at the start of a long chain. You make a decision, take the corresponding action, and the dominos start to fall. At the end of the chain is some outcome: improved customer care, a happy child, perfect cars.
But what if you are held responsible for things you can’t control?
Your good decision depends on your ability to accurately imagine the chain of events in advance. If I offer fresh-baked cookies to customers, will that make them happier? And what about the downside – the extra cost? If I find a good therapist for my child’s ADD, will he be less likely to act up in school? And what about the cost? The stigma? The time commitment?
And here’s where things go awry: responsibility for the outcome without the authority to pick the action.
If I am responsible for something, then I must be allowed the authority to make decisions about it. If someone else wishes to take responsibility, then I am happy to hand over the reins of authority as well. But you can’t have one without the other. Without losing it.
Here’s the picture:
The other side of the coin: authority without responsibility. Grandpa visits, feeds the kids candy, then leaves for the day. It’s not a pretty picture.
In an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world, where the chains are longer than ever and keep shifting, this is increasingly likely. And bad guys have an easier time hiding within the chaos.
(And yes, DI friends, that’s a decision model. If you’re responsible for the outcomes, then to the extent it’s possible, you need to be allowed to pull the levers as well. Formally, this is moral hazard.)
(Update: a third leg of the stool is information: even if responsibility and authority are all yours, if you don’t know enough of the situation to act rationally, then that’s not ideal either. A related concept: seagull management: where an ill-informed person (usually your superior), “swoops in and…” well, you get what happens next.)