Take Personal Responsibility

Take Personal Responsibility

The way to best live this rule is by the behavioral technique of Give Credit; Take Blame.

The Example

A nice example of this rule and behavioral technique happened a few years back when I was the technical manager of a project to create a new customer-facing notification system.

The risk profile was high: we were integrating two new major applications and a new technology into a multi-tiered, highly-matrixed platform. I was the technical manager, leading the development aspect of the project, with an embedded technical project manager leading the overall effort. As the development cycle progressed, it became apparent that we would not be delivering full functionality by our launch date and needed to adjust our plan. After discussion, we decided to launch on time, but with significantly reduced functionality. We’d then use what we learned to better plan the rest of the features.

I sent out an email to the business units, managers, and other impacted teams, who already knew from our status reports that we’d been struggling. Now, our whole organization came from a waterfall development background, and releasing with reduced but working functionality was historically NOT an option. Things were changing, slowly, with the introduction of agile processes, but it didn’t matter – I knew our project was about to break some culture rules.

Mindful of the agile vs waterfall culture clash, I took full responsibility for the situation as the technology manager, and said the technical team had worked hard under my direction but would not deliver all our functionality at once.

That day I watched my inbox for two things: acknowledgment from our integration partners and a corollary announcement from our technical project manager.

The integration partners were fine, and could launch their components regardless. They were grumpy as expected, but sent emails wishing us better luck next quarter. Sadly, our technical project manager was completely silent. No communication of any kind. Not even just to agree that the team had worked hard.

The Analysis

Here’s the thing: if you’re a leader (manager, pm, tech lead, VP, etc.), you need to accept personal responsibility for what goes wrong, just as you would take credit for what goes right.

Imagine a review where a leader is given credit and compensation for achievements over the past year. With the Rule #8 and the behavior of Give Credit; Take Blame, the leader replies: “Thank you. It was the TEAM. WE did well together.” That, gentle reader, does NOT happen often enough.

Now, let’s alter the variables. Imagine a review where a leader is faulted for a year of low achievement. What happens next in this story? The leader, using Give Credit; Take Blame, replies: “Yes, the team and our challenges should have been better managed by me.” That, gentle reader, also does NOT happen often enough.

By always giving credit and taking blame, you not only serve your teams well, garner loyalty, and exemplify a class of strong behavior for others to emulate, you also differentiate yourself. People just don’t do that too often. Look at your own career situation. Don’t you wish your leader did this? Do you think the people you lead wish you did this?

Continuing with my example…

The following quarter, the project team delivered all functionality. I didn’t lose one team member, despite long hours and the specter of a failed delivery. Later I learned that some of the team had even turned down attempts to be recruited away to other areas within the org.

After we’d launched, while fiddling around with my own profile, I realized we had built a system that could also easily accommodate SMS alerts by adding a few short-format templates. Happily, this gave me the chance to exercise the Give Credit portion of the technique.

SMS alerting was still new then, and so that feature was a big hit with the executives. My group VP said he was giving me all the credit during follow-up sessions with the senior leaders. I stopped him; we had covered this already. “What did you say?” I was a little surprised by my tone, which resembled one for disciplining a 7th grader in my teaching days. I continued: “It wasn’t me, it was the team. The TEAM gets credit.”

Later, I was very glad when SMS messaging was noted as one of the top 5 technical features developed during the year, and that the group as a whole was credited. Several colleagues approached me over the next few days and said, “But weren’t YOU responsible for SMS messaging?” I just smiled and said, “Nope. It’s always the team.”