Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 52;   December 27, 2017: On Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble

On Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble

by

When we assign responsibility for troubles that bedevil us, we often make mistakes. We can be misled by language, stereotypes, and the assumptions we make about others.
An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other engineers

An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other engineers. You can't see them, because they're at least 4,000 miles away in four locations.

When we discover an issue within our organizations, two intertwined imperatives demand attention: "How did this happen?" and "What do we do about it?" As we address the former question, almost inevitably we begin to assign responsibility for creating the problem. Even if we succeed in avoiding blamefests [1], we can still make gross errors. To understand how many traps await us on the path to Truth, consider the example of technical debt.

Technical debt is any technological element that contributes, through its existence or its absence, to lower productivity or to a higher probability of defects in engineering efforts, or which depresses enterprise agility somehow. When we recognize it, we usually want to revise or replace some technological artifacts — or create what's missing — for sound engineering reasons. Technical debts can be found associated with enterprise assets of all kinds.

The causes of growth in technical debt are numerous, including — among many others — insufficient resources, schedule pressure, existing technical debt, changes in strategic direction, changes in law or regulations, and the risks associated with creating first-of-kind solutions to difficult problems. In most engineering activity, new technical debt is inevitable.

When technologists — engineers, their managers, or others in technical roles — try to alert the rest of the organization to the problems associated with accumulating technical debt, they often meet resistance from non-technologists. Technologists usually respond to this resistance by explaining technical debt and its consequences, and sometimes they do receive the resources, time, and cooperation they need to start retiring the accumulated technical debt, and to avoid adding more debt to the burden the enterprise already carries.

But explaining rarely works, for reasons beyond mere misunderstanding the issue. One fundamental problem is the term technical debt. Non-technologists must be forgiven for believing that since technical debt is inherently technical, it follows that its causes are also technical; that technologists are solely responsible for creating technical debt, and non-technologists play no role. That is, of course, false.

A second Language, stereotypes, and
assumptions can conspire
to confuse us about the
causes of problems
cause of misconceptions about the causes of technical debt lies in the assumptions we make about what diligent work looks like. Many non-technologists have roles in General Management, Sales, Marketing, or Business Development. They're working hard when they're in contact with each other or with people external to the enterprise. They're traveling, conversing by telephone, or hosting meetings. By contrast, technologists are working hard when they're at their (real or virtual) desks, or attending (real or virtual) meetings on premises. They do attend meetings off premises, but they do so at much lower rates than do non-technologists.

When non-technologists assess the technologists' work ethic, they tend to use the same standards and assumptions they apply to themselves. They under-estimate the technologists' activity level because outwardly, technologists appear more often to be what non-technologists would regard as "idle" — sitting at their desks [2]

And so language, stereotypes, and assumptions conspire to lead some to believe that technologists are solely responsible for technical debt. Proceeding from that conclusion, finding a resolution of the problem will be difficult indeed. Language, stereotypes, and assumptions can be traps. Go to top Top  Next issue: Polychronic Meetings  Next Issue

[1]
See "Is It Blame or Is It Accountability?," Point Lookout for December 21, 2005, for more about blame and accountability. Back
[2]
Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, Third Edition, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004, p. 33. Back

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenBBxzqVkyfGgEnaPyner@ChacQBUFrukUgFWSmJNkoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

The unappreciative bossThe Unappreciative Boss
Do you work for a boss who doesn't appreciate you? Do you feel ignored or excessively criticized? If you do, life can be a misery, if you make it so. Or you can work around it. It's up to you to choose.
Blaming and being blamedIs It Blame or Is It Accountability?
When we seek those accountable for a particular failure, we risk blaming them instead, because many of us confuse accountability with blame. What's the difference between them? How can we keep blame at bay?
Acrobatics requires trustThe High Cost of Low Trust: I
We usually think of Trust as one of those soft qualities that we would all like our organizational cultures to have. Yet, truly paying attention to Trust at work is rare, in part, because we don't fully appreciate what distrust really costs. Here are some of the ways we pay for low trust.
One of the Franklin Milestones on the Boston Post RoadManaging Pressure: Milestones and Deliveries
Pressed repeatedly for "status" reports, you might guess that they don't want status — they want progress. Things can get so nutty that responding to the status requests gets in the way of doing the job. How does this happen and what can you do about it? Here's Part III of a set of tactics and strategies for dealing with pressure.
The Bill of RightsImpasses in Group Decision-Making: II
When groups can't reach agreement on all aspects of an issue, the tactics of some members can actually exacerbate disagreement. Here's Part II of an exploration of impasses, emphasizing two of the more toxic tactics.

See also Conflict Management and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A voltmeter with a needleComing January 17: High Falutin' Goofy Talk: II
Speech and writing at work are sometimes little more than high falutin' goofy talk, filled with puff phrases of unknown meaning and pretentious, tired images. Here's Part II of a collection of phrases and images to avoid. Available here and by RSS on January 17.
Passing the baton in a relay raceAnd on January 24: Understanding Delegation
It's widely believed that managers delegate some of their own authority and responsibility to their subordinates, who then use that authority and responsibility to get their work done. That view is unfortunate. It breeds micromanagers. Available here and by RSS on January 24.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenTWOMtKLEQspXJzUKner@ChacnstbASoCbOmUYmjEoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
When Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applicationswe talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use — a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.