Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 52;   December 27, 2017:

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 [Brenner 2005], 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 nontechnologists. 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. Nontechnologists 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 nontechnologists 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 nontechnologists 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 nontechnologists.

When nontechnologists 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 nontechnologists would regard as "idle" — sitting at their desks. [Schein 2004]

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

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!

Footnotes

[Brenner 2005]
Richard Brenner. "Is It Blame or Is It Accountability?," Point Lookout blog, December 21, 2005. Available here. Back
[Schein 2004]
Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, Fifth Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004, p. 33. Order from Amazon.com. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenXEiRBfuFHUtjHrqUner@ChacpYPvvSVhUNIOeXHKoCanyon.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 Cone NebulaShining Some Light on "Going Dark"
If you're a project manager, and a team member "goes dark" — disappears or refuses to report how things are going — project risks escalate dramatically. Getting current status becomes a top priority problem. What can you do?
The 1991 eruption of Mount PinatuboManaging Pressure: Communications and Expectations
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 I of a little catalog of tactics and strategies for dealing with pressure.
A calm seaAn Emergency Toolkit
You've just had some bad news at work, and you're angry or really upset. Maybe you feel like the target of a vicious insult or the victim of a serious injustice. You have work to do, and you want to respond, but you must first regain your composure. What can you do to calm down and start feeling better?
The giant sequoiaThe Good, the Bad, and the Complicated
In fiction and movies, the world is often simple. There's a protagonist, a goal, and a series of obstacles. The protagonists and goals are good, and the obstacles are bad. Real life is more complicated.
Three gulls excluding a fourthAn Introduction to Workplace Ostracism
We say that a person has been ostracized from a group when that person is ignored by the members of that group or excluded from participating in that group's activities, and when we might otherwise expect that person to be a member. Workplace ostracism can have expensive consequences for the enterprise.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Tennis balls on a tennis court. Your fitness program can be a part of your job search.Coming July 28: Be Choosier About Job Offers: II
An unfortunate outcome of job searches occurs when a job seeker feels forced to accept an offer that isn't a good fit. Sometimes financial pressures are so severe that the seeker has little choice. But financial pressures are partly perceptual. Here's how to manage feeling that pressure. Available here and by RSS on July 28.
A beach at sunsetAnd on August 4: What Are the Chances: I
When estimating the probabilities of success of different strategies, we must often estimate the probability of multiple events occurring. People make a common mistake when forming such estimates. They assume that events are independent when they are not. Available here and by RSS on August 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenXEiRBfuFHUtjHrqUner@ChacpYPvvSVhUNIOeXHKoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

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.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. 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 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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.