Empowering & Enabling Responsibility

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Empowering teams is a topic the DevOps and Agile communities frequently talk about. But it is easier said than done. Here is one simple approach to empowering teams you can do right now.

But first a little background...

Responsibility vs Accountability

We frequently work with leaders who are new to DevOps. We ask them straightforward questions such as - “Why are you interested in DevOps?” We often hear answers along the lines of “We want to make teams more accountable for their actions.” When we dig in a bit further, we learn this is not actually what they mean. What they are trying to say is that they want to empower teams with responsibility for their own work.

What’s the difference between accountability and responsibility? Look up the definitions and you might find yourself going back and forth between them endlessly. It’s as if you are trying to navigate through an M.C. Escher drawing.

For us, being accountable means you’re answerable for something. In its worse form, a leader makes the team answerable for an outcome that is beyond their control to influence. It can come from command-and-control style of leadership. If you’ve ever been held accountable for meeting a goal without the ability to influence how to accomplish it, you know what we mean.

Being responsible means you have the competency, authority, and the correct understanding of the desired outcome so that you can deliver that outcome as you see fit.

When we discuss this topic with leadership, we often use Christopher Avery's work around the responsibility process. It’s an effective conversation starter that helps shift the focus away from accountability toward responsibility.

With that context out of the way, let's look at the one simple thing you can do to empower teams.

Decision Rings

The image above is something you can refer to with your leaders, coaches, and teams. In this example, the center circle is the team, the next outer circle is their manager(s), the next outer circle is domain experts from the business, and the outermost circle is some executive leadership.

The rings represent different levels in an organization. We use them to help frame discussions when asking “Who can make this decision?” The decision making structure in your organization may be different.  The decision making structure may also change depending upon the question at hand.

Let's look at an example. Imagine your product team is working on the goal of increasing sales by delivering promotional content in banner ads. After starting to work on that goal, the team uncovers a better way of improving sales with promotions that has nothing to do with banner ads. Who makes the decision on what to deliver?

First, we make sure we agree where that decision is made today – and we’re not talking about where it’s “officially” made according to some policy. We’re talking about where it’s actually made given the messy, often political nature of decision making within organizations.

Next, we ask “what information would need to be made available or what competency would need to be developed to move that decision inward?” We can then get to work making any necessary changes. Or, we can move the decision-making authority inward if no changes are necessary.

In the above example, we might say “Right now, the business team needs to make that decision. For the product team to be able to make that decision, we would need to provide them more information on the organization’s strategic goals.”

We have just started exploring using this technique in the dojos and it is driving productive conversations. It is not a silver bullet, but it’s a nice simple visual that starts conversations driving empowerment and growing responsibility.

Try it out. Let us know how it works for you.