Growing Response-ability

June 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:

    1. The state or fact of having a duty to deal with something.
    2. 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.

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  • Charlie Jones says:

    an interesting post, Mr. Curtis. do you know of any examples of organizations / companies that changed their spots after having been established – going from top heavy responsibility to appropriately distributed responsibility? it seems (to me) like the kind of idea that has to be in place at the start because, along with great responsibility also comes great power and we know how eager folks in power are to give it up – even if it makes sense.

  • Curtis says:

    Great question, Charlie! The answer if found in some of Carol Sanford’s (and others’ work). Yes, it can be done, and may need to happen in a particular business unit or department first, though not necessarily. Carol’s book has some wonderful stories to this effect, as do the good people at Growth River. It starts with a deeply held and understood shift of roles . . .

  • Carey says:

    I really like the idea of organizations as living systems that grow, evolve and change particularly in light of being more responsive to contemporary challenges. This made me think of some of the work NASA has done around engaging those closest to the work to be accountable for shaping decisions. Through a reporting mechanism they designed a system based on an upward theory of communication (bottom to top). And this theory is also seen in some health care organizations where nursing — often those closest to the work — become central to designing care plans and care decisions. In addition to trust and accountable, as you mentioned, I would add that transparency is also central for organizations who want to be more response-able.

  • Curtis says:


    Thanks for your comment and concrete examples! And a big YES on the importance of transparency!


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