Growing Response-abilityJune 20, 2012 Leave a comment
Over the past couple of years, I have learned much from Carol Sanford, organizational consultant and author of The Responsible Business. This includes a deeper understanding of the word “responsibility.” Often this term has a burdensome association with it, as in, “with great freedom comes great responsibility.” Here are a couple of definitions that come up when you Google the term:
- The state or fact of having a duty to deal with something.
- The state or fact of being accountable or to blame for something.
In applying the term to business (and I would extend it to organizations of all kinds) Carol is clear that responsibility has with it an association of liberation, if viewed from the proper perspective. This takes us back to the etymological roots of the word. Responsibility means a state of being able to respond. When we apply this term to organizations run from a mechanistic perspective, responsibility generally is sucked up to “the top” echelons of leadership and narrowed to a point of meaninglessness for those closest to “the ground.” What this ultimately does is makes it much less possible for the organization as a whole to respond in timely and appropriate ways to what is happening in the broader ecosystem of which an organization is a part. And it means a reduction in collective accountability for the ramifications of organizational actions. Imagine over-burdened executives feeling as if they have to do everyone else’s job for them. Imagine front line workers/program staff numbed out, counting the days to retirement or thumbing through the want ads. Imagine organizations seemingly ignorant of the havoc they are wrecking on the environment.
Now imagine another situation, in which response-ability is distributed throughout the organization is ways that are appropriate to the roles, experience, expertise, closeness to key decision-making points, and mission-framed passions of all internal stakeholders. This scenario is rooted in a different perspective, a living systems and evolutionary view that suggests that organizations as living organisms want to develop towards greater complexity, self-organizing with individual components being trusted to do what is right in service of the survival and thriving of the whole. Of course, this pre-supposes that this view is held internally by formal leadership, along with the capacity to support the entire organism in this direction.
An interesting example of this is provided in the recent case study by Gary Hamel of Morning Star, a leading food processor, which appeared in the Harvard Business Review. Morning Star, according to Hamel, has been successful without having formal bosses, titles or promotions. Instead it has adopted a model in which:
- Employees negotiate responsibilities with their peers
- Everyone can spend the company’s money
- Each individual is responsible for acquiring the tools needed to do her or his work
- Compensation decisions are peer-based
Of course, this requires a special kind of workforce to pull this off, to trust one another to do the right thing and to be accountable to the mission as the boss. The advantages include more initiative, flexibility, judgment, collegiality, loyalty, and . . . responsibility, both in terms of a greater sense of agency and accountability to a greater whole. That, to me, is the leading edge of social/organizational evolution.