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The problem with personal responsibility

How do I master the spirits I have summoned?

A mantra of the TELE organisation, which we are constantly repeating, nearly ritualistically: everyone in the company can and should take personal responsibility. Anyone can initiate a project. And everyone is allowed to make mistakes in the process. This sounds great, right? Everyone should have the same opportunities to unfold their talents. To pursue their goals and enjoy the fruits of their success. So far, so good. Unfortunately, this ideal, in a less than ideal corporate reality, is (still) characterised by small and large flaws.

Flaw 1 – The doers hold the power

A company consists of many different individuals with different value systems and needs. There are those who are always rushing forward, uninhibitedly jumping into the fray, and handling drama without problems when something goes wrong. Then there are those who are careful, who would rather wait until someone else has done something that they are quick to criticise. And there are some who prefer to remain in the background and are fine being told what to do.

If things are allowed to take their course, the “doers” will decisively determine the structure of the company and gradually start to occupy unofficial leadership positions, simply by “doing what needs to be done” and creating outcomes. “Doers” do not necessarily take the time for self-reflection. Learning from mistakes is not really their thing. This damages the development of the company and often costs a great deal of money, because poor strategies are pursued regardless of the consequences.

What to do?

Companies of the future need mechanisms to ensure that all employees are truly taking personal responsibility, being active, and advocating for their interests. The fruitful equilibrium of all interests is only possible with participation from everyone.


Flaw 2 – Creative chaos on its own is expensive

Many exciting things can happen when people just start going for it. But also many things that are not very exciting. Who maintains an overview of all the projects being constantly initiated? Who ensures that all projects are in line with the company strategy?
Implementing every idea costs money. When six colleagues regularly meet in a working group, for example, this eats up working time, which in turn is expensive. It becomes particularly interesting when projects stall or run into a dead end or even fail entirely. Who ultimately decides when enough is enough?

What to do?

Companies of the future will need a clear standards and control structure for ongoing projects. The assessment of the project progress, successes, and failures as well as (cost) controls should be carried out by an entity that is not involved in the project itself. If projects are not working or finances get out of hand, there must be policies for consequences.

Flaw 3 – Things become too complex

As soon as people in different areas of the company with 100 employees start making their own decisions, one hand does not know what the other hand is doing. Projects influence each other negatively or tasks are not properly delegated. Who is responsible for monitoring this (in due time) and doing something about it?

Moreover, circumstances and perspectives are constantly changing in an agile company. If communication is lacking, employees with different levels of knowledge are left behind. For example, it can be problematic from a marketing point of view, if changes to the company’s philosophy/strategy are not immediately communicated internally to all parties. Of course, every employee can and should be communicating our ideas externally (to interested parties, the media, etc.). But this is also how outdated information is disseminated.

What to do?

In companies of the future, people who are responsible for managing projects and making decisions must become accustomed to regularly communicating updates about their projects to all other people in the company. The chaos is only manageable if the actions and ideas undertaken by individuals are transparent. What is clear by now: disseminating information (in records which are often hard to understand for outsiders) using the InfoNet is not enough. We are still seeking ideas and instruments for improving this situation.

Lessons learned

  1. We must inspire employees to actually take responsibility.
  2. We need a clear set of rules and functioning control mechanisms for all projects in the company.
  3. We need to institutionalise communication about what we are doing even better.
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