Boy Scouts and Coffee Kitchen Officers

Personalized responsibility in the form of a "single wringable neck" is the means of choice when it comes to reliably shaping cooperation in organizations. With each such role, however, the level of organized irresponsibility increases.

In every com­mu­ni­ty there are tasks that need to be done. It is in the nature of things that there are also tasks that nobody wants to do. The deplorable state of shared cof­fee kitchens in the office is just one exam­ple of many in dai­ly life. The prin­ci­ple of the Boy Scouts, name­ly to leave the world always bet­ter than you found it, is unfor­tu­nate­ly most­ly neglect­ed in every­day life. 

Try and leave this world a lit­tle bet­ter than you found it.

Robert Stephen­son Smyth Baden-Powell

What is obvi­ous in the cof­fee kitchen is not always so easy to see in the work of teams. Nev­er­the­less, it is usu­al­ly the case that the team bears joint respon­si­bil­i­ty for the results and that there are always some activ­i­ties that are less will­ing to be tak­en on. Until their neglect becomes a prob­lem, e.g., because nobody in the DevOps team took care of the secu­ri­ty and now every­thing is full of holes like Swiss cheese. Or because the aspects of sta­ble oper­a­tion have been neglect­ed and the IT sys­tem now runs cor­re­spond­ing­ly unstable. 

So far, so famil­iar. And the clas­si­cal reac­tion is also suf­fi­cient­ly famil­iar: Clear and above all per­son­al­ized respon­si­bil­i­ty is need­ed. This is the birth of the cof­fee kitchen offi­cer, who will hence­forth be held account­able for the con­di­tion of the dish­wash­ers in his area of respon­si­bil­i­ty. The same applies to the IT secu­ri­ty offi­cer in the team and, of course, to the oper­a­tions man­ag­er and many oth­ers who fol­low this path to orga­nized irresponsibility.

Because no one cares, a per­son in charge is appoint­ed, a “sin­gle wringable neck”, who has to take care of the mat­ter under threat of con­se­quences. So once again, it seems, the neg­a­tive con­cep­tion of man known as The­o­ry X has been con­firmed: peo­ple are lazy, self­ish and irresponsible. 

We were not lec­tured about the respon­si­bil­i­ty to bear, that sim­ply emerged in the community.

Mar­i­on Gräfin Dönhoff

Of course, trans­paren­cy regard­ing who takes on which tasks is a good thing. But effec­tive teams man­age this allo­ca­tion in a self-orga­nized way and adapt it on the fly accord­ing to needs and com­pe­ten­cies. How­ev­er, this requires a great deal of matu­ri­ty on the part of the team and the peo­ple. And it requires a feel­ing of belong­ing togeth­er, respon­si­bil­i­ty for the com­mon mis­sion and, in par­tic­u­lar, psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty. As a mem­ber of the com­mu­ni­ty, I must be able to rely on that every­one cares for the whole and for the oth­er mem­bers as deeply as I do. Only with the cer­tain­ty that all oth­ers would do the same for me or for the com­mon cause, I am ready to engage myself for the “we” over and above my self­ish concerns.

With the­o­ry X and its neg­a­tive con­cep­tion of man as a basis, how­ev­er, one moves one step fur­ther away from this ide­al with every per­son­al­ized respon­si­bil­i­ty. The cof­fee kitchen offi­cer will nev­er become a scout. On the con­trary. He will self­ish­ly take care of exact­ly what he is held respon­si­ble for. And if there is paper on the floor in the toi­let next to the kitchen, he will not care. And then, of course, the toi­let man­ag­er is need­ed, and so fate takes its course.

As long as you need heroes or cul­prits to explain a sit­u­a­tion con­vinc­ing­ly, you haven’t under­stood it yet.

Ger­hard Wohland

So instead of push­ing this orga­nized irre­spon­si­bil­i­ty to its extreme with ever more refined, clear­ly defined roles with per­son­al­ized respon­si­bil­i­ty, it is nec­es­sary to go to the root of the prob­lem: the increas­ing indi­vid­u­al­iza­tion, the result­ing lack of a sense of belong­ing, the absence of a joint­ly sup­port­ed mis­sion and, last but not least, the lack of psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty, with­out which lone fight­ers will not become a team.

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