“We” is a Good Way to Get Nothing Done

IMG_3800I've noticed through the years that lots of people shoot themselves in the foot over and over again, and they never realize that they're doing it. It's the simplest thing in the world, yet it seems to constantly evade even seasoned managers. Paradoxically, it even seems to be a great way to reach out to people, empowering them to do great things, yet, it'll kill you every time.

So, what's the problem? Simple. If you make more than one person responsible for something, it's only by the greatest miracle that it'll get done at all. Doesn't seem to make sense, does it? After all, adding people to a task should make it move more quickly. Adding brains to a problem should boost creativity. Why does this break down? In short, if more than one person is responsible for a task, then nobody is responsible.

Here's what I'm talking about. If you've ever been in a meeting -- a hallway meeting or a board meeting -- and heard someone say, "I thought you were doing that!", then you've seen this phenomenon in action. As soon as there's any ambiguity about whose head is going to roll if there's a problem, you invite more problems. This isn't necessarily because people aren't trying hard, though this does provide a convenient avenue for scapegoating. No, it's really a problem of communicating and personal integrity, and thus, it scales up exponentially as the number of "responsible" parties grows.

Let's walk through an example. Let's say you're chairing a committee of peers, and you ask them collectively to achieve some objectives, you're very likely to see one or more of the following scenarios play out:

  • The committee members sit down and rationally divide the work, then each goes off and completes the work as intended. Riiiigghhttt..... While this does sometimes happen just like that, it's only when all three of the people are responsible, reliable, and free from political motivation. It can happen, but you can't rely on it in the average organization.
  • One member steps up and takes responsibility for the group. He monitors the division of work, and he checks to make sure that things get done. This is essentially a project manager role for that group of tasks. Note that since this is an informal organization, you still need the cooperation of the other members. Any one of them can intentionally or unintentionally torpedo his individual task, putting the whole project at risk
  • Political infighting erupts over division of work, credit for success, blame for failure, and so on. This might seem very likely, but I've rarely seen it, since this sort of bickering draws negative attention in a hurry.
  • Nothing gets done. Variations on this theme would be very little gets done, or something gets done very, very late, or something gets done that has no significant resemblance to the intended objective. This scenario is quite common, because it's the easiest, and the responsibility structure allows any of the users to "opt out" of the work, and then re-surface to point fingers when questions arise.

All of this sounds pretty pessimistic, as if I expect everybody in any given business environment to be lazy, politically-motivated, ruthless back-stabbers. This isn't the case, though I've certainly seen it to be true from time to time. No, in most cases, these are dedicated, honest, hard-working co-workers who are simply trying to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. The best and most successful of these people will, by nature, be the busiest. No good deed goes unpunished, after all. These busy people probably won't have time for anything else. In fact, if you ask them directly to do something for you, there's a good chance they'll tell you that they're too busy.

If you ask them as part of a group to collectively do something together, however, there's a good chance they won't tell you that they're too busy because they assume that someone else is going to pick up that task. And therein lies the rub. Asking a group of people to do something allows the no-goods to squirm out of responsibility on purpose, and it allows the go-getters to wrongly believe that someone else is going to step up to the plate and do the right thing. Either way, there's a good chance that they ball is going to get dropped.

So be direct. It's not rude or imposing - it's the only way to get something done. Make sure that when a task is given, it's given to one responsible person (even if other people are asked to "help"). Make sure that person realizes that an assignment happened. And then follow up to make sure it's done.

It sounds simple, but you'll be amazed how infrequently it happens when you start looking for it.

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