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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Christopher Avery on Responsibility

Christopher Avery on Responsibility


1. This is Amr Elssamadisy at Agile 2009 with Cristopher Avery. Good morning, Cristopher and thank you for joining us! I know many of us already know about you and of you and of your work. What can you tell us for those of us who don't know?

I'm a 20-25 year applied organizational scientist. What many people don't know is I did my dissertation work on the 5th generation computer project at MCC in Austin Microelectronics and Computer Technology Consortium - the first national consortium, whose interest was to figure out how to rapidly move from basic research to industrial strength application. My work was around what we then called technology transfer and it was seen as a contact sport - that's about as much as we knew about it in the '80s - which means communication is important, interpersonal communication between scientists, engineers, managers, marketers.

My dissertation work was on the competing loyalties of these folks and immediately after finishing the dissertation, a very large company asked me to help them figure out how to teach software, project leaders had to build teams. Ever since then, I've been very focused on the world of high technology and product development, especially in IT and software and especially teaching really smart people how to build high performance work systems, either at the team level or in terms of creating a department or an organization that will allow teams to flourish.

Personal responsibility, or what I would call shared responsibility, was the thing that I found that made the most sense to try and teach smart people that didn't want to take 2 or 3 days to attend class, that would capture their attention. The idea is that all of our metaphors for work and organizing our pyramid shaped based on superior support relationships "Do this! I'll tell you whether or not you did a good job and I'll keep you employed or I'll fire you!" When you are working peer to peer, and you don't have that pyramid relationship, then what's the glue that makes it stick? What's the dynamic? It's not authority.

All it is, is a felt sense of ownership, of a bigger thing that you are doing together with somebody else. What I discovered is that when that felt sense of ownership, that felt sense of responsibility is there, then people organically change their behavior immediately. When you and I get the sense that you and I are in it together, that this interview is going to suck if you and I don't work together, when you and I get that, then our behavior changes so that we're in a more helping mood, we feel more interdependent, we work to trust and to be trusted by the other, we pick up a ball dropped by another, we cover a mistake made by another and when that felt sense of responsibility isn't there, then you and I tend not to do those things with each other, unless we just are that kind of a person.

What it comes down to is that we either need to learn how to create this sense of felt responsibility or we need to develop individuals and cultures of love who just do it naturally. It's a lot easier to create situations where people feel a sense of shared responsibility than it is to create cultures of love. That's where things started, but along the way I needed to understand responsibility and how to teach it to people and I've become an accidental expert in how personal responsibility works in the mind, which is the first "how to" model in the world, in the history of all the preaching since from the existentialists onto the present day, all the people preaching that you have to take personal responsibility, if you want to succeed in the world, this work is the first that tells people how to do that. That's who I am!


3. I was specifically talking about the how to of personal responsibility as opposed to a culture of love.

This is the cool thing. This research for me is redefining and completely changing my mental models of what personal responsibility is. I think my mental models were in line with society's mental models in general. Personal responsibility is the character of someone who's an upstanding citizen, someone who gets themselves through the hurdles of high school and college and into the workforce and pays the bills and takes care of the family and that's a responsible person. Then, as an authority, as a boss or as a leader when we have tasks to give to folks, to delegate, we think of people who either have this characteristic of they have responsibility or we have these other people that don't seem to take responsibility. We see responsibility either character trait or character flaw and another cool thing about it is that all of us think that we have it and that we are surrounded by this sea of incompetence, by this sea of people who are lacking it.


4. Do you mean we are not?

It does look that way. The truth is that I am one of those people, you are one of those people, we are all one of those people that is surrounding somebody else that looks irresponsible to them. And here is why - the reason is that we are not always in a responsible state of mind. In fact, we are in a responsible state of mind only on 2 occasions: one is when everything is going well and it turns out that responsibility is a psychology in a language of when things are not going well. When things are going well, nobody cares, nobody thinks about responsibility.

The other time that we are in a mind state of responsibility is when we are feeling powerful and clear and resourceful about how to recover and grow as a result of a problem or mistake or an accident or an upset, something not going well. But actually, most of the time, when things don't go well, we are in one of these other mental positions or mind sets, from denial through lay blame, through justify, through shame, obligation and quit. It might be easier if I hold this up. It's what we've discovered about responsibility is that it's a mental process, it's not a character trait or flaw and the processes are rather linear process that says that when things go wrong that attribution process in our mind hands us an answer "It's his fault!"

For instance, I can't find my car keys and my first question is "Who took my keys?" Now, you think that that's maybe a learned or a conditioned response, to blame, but we firmly believe that the mind is programmed genetically for these responses and that getting to the mental state of responsibility is what's left after you get fed the lay blame answer by your mental process and you refuse to buy it and get fed the excuse of the justify and refuse to buy it and get fed that beating yourself up internalizing - "It's my fault. I'm stupid. I'm a dummy. I'll never learn." - and you refuse to buy that, you get fed obligation - "I have to, I'm trapped, I don't have any choice".

Only when you refuse to buy that answer, can you start thinking clearly about "How can I be an agent in learning and growing and overcoming this challenge?" It turns out then that this process, for me, is the personal growth process, this is how you and I grow. Every time we've overcome any challenge in our live we've gone through this process, even if we didn't realize it at the time and we've gotten frustrated with each of these steps that we were stuck at for some period of time and we actually decided to quit agreeing with the answer at this step and it moves us up. What that means is that no one lives in a state of responsibility itself. It's a fleeting mental state. Let me relate it quickly to leadership research.

There is lots of different avenues of leadership research, but one more promising avenue is state versus trait research. The trait research says that you can list a bunch of qualities characteristics of a leader and the truth is that at thousands of studies of what are the characteristics of the leader, there is very little agreement - integrity, trust, enthusiasm, etc. There is more agreement about state research that says that leaders get into these mental states of clear thinking, resourcefulness, responsibility. I see this as a self leadership process that if you aren't getting the results that you want in your life, in your work, in your team, maybe there is something for you to learn about what you could do differently. I think I answered your question.


5. What I understand is that responsibility is where we grow and this is something that's hardwired into us, as human beings?

Yes, that's our belief. I have not done the brain research, but it's based on the evidence of looking at people across gender, across race, across culture, across age, across level of academic fulfillment and seeing absolutely the same pattern.


6. So, it's consistent?

It's a very consistent pattern.


7. Excellent! Here is where my mind wondered as you were talking: this is great for leadership. I'm assuming this is not only for leaders, this is for all of us. How can this be useful for Joe developer down there, who's a member of an Agile team or Terry the tester, or Barry the business analyst -all of these folks, who are doing their day to day jobs working in a team? And how does this affect them or does it at all? Is this only for our personal lives?

Here is how it affects them. Most of these people fall in the very intelligent, the thinking category, the creative, using our brains category. The comic tragedy of this work is that this is more related to the emotional process than it is to cognitive intellectual process, which means that you can use all of your wit and your brain power to stay stuck in justify. Justify means that the reason, the cause for my effect, the cause for me not giving the result I want is some set of circumstances or conditions beyond my control.


8. For example, in your lost keys story?

In my lost keys story, I'm working away at my desk, and I need to go to an appointment and I reach for the place I keep my keys and they are not there and I say "Who took my keys?" We all do it. And then, my next thought is "Wait a minute, nobody has been in my office, but me, since I drove to work and came in". That took lay blame away from me and I graduate and my mind hands me a justify "Well, no wonder you can't find your keys, when you came into your office you were talking on your cell phone and the land line was ringing and the window was open, rain was coming in, the cat knocked over the plant, there were papers everywhere. No wonder, anybody in this condition would have lost their keys."


9. So, it's still not your fault.

It's still not my fault - yes, instead a set of circumstances beyond my control. The way that this works for Terry the tester, Joe the developer is that they want to win, they want to make progress, they want to grow and learn. If you ask them "Do you want to stay stuck on a problem and to get to keep the problem" - and that's what happens if you accept the blame or the justify or the beating yourself up is the answer, then your fundamental assumption is that there is nothing you can do about it, therefore the problem will persist. The question is "Do you want to stay stuck?" and the answer is "Heck, no!" What you can do is learn this really simple process about how your mind deals with upset and problems. By the way, how many times, every day does something go wrong?


10. 5,000?

5,000 times a day. In terms of Agile world, I think our key-noter at this conference, Alistair [Cockburn] was talking about the we need to learn how to move from an environment of evaluation and upset and problems and negativity, to an environment of learning. That's exactly what the responsibility process is about - every upset is an opportunity to learn, every single upset. I trip over a crack in the sidewalk and I'm mad at the city. I can hold on to that for the rest of my life, I can go to court and sue for my broken toe. Or for the spilt coffee, or I can say "You know what? There is something for me to learn here about walking around a city that's decades old and it didn't have perfect technology when they built sidewalks."


11. What I hear you say is this realization that we go through these different states it's almost a meta-skill, it's a skill that we can use for all our problems, no matter what our work is, whether we're developers or testers.

It's a background process. I believe that the really important stuff in work and in culture is going on in the background, it's not in the process, it's in the mechanics and the tools, which are designed to work in a well-functioning environment. I'm not against processes and tools and structures, but I think the real powerful stuff it's what's going on in the background of the processing, of the thought systems. What Joe the developer, Terry the tester want is to be able to make progress to overcome the challenges.

They learn this as a meta-tool, as a background as how they are processing information. Then, they can advance their career, they can create better software, they can perform better and faster, they can have more fun and we get to achieve something at work which is really important, which is we get to raise productivity and we get to raise engagement, morale and satisfaction at the same time, which is also part of the Agile message.


12. It also sounds that this would be a key ingredient in any successful self organizing team, because at least as we speak of it in the Agile community as you are aware, self organizing team is a team that their members figure how to solve problems together. It's not your problems, not my problems, not your wing on fire.

This is where all this whole odessy started. I was looking for a way to teach smart people how to build teams and remember the beginning of our interview, what's the essence? The essence is the stuff called shared responsibility, when people feel the sense of shared ownership for some bigger thing, then their behavior automatically changes, organically changes. I have a set of tips for teaching people how to do that.


13. How to do what? Build teams?

How to build and lead teams. If you think about these things, it will make you think about the shared dynamics that helped to create a sense of felt ownership, so that people become more helpful, become more interdependent, work towards building trust, do what they say they'll do, clean up messes they make. The single most important thing is that you as individual assume 100% responsibility for the success of your team or relationship. Think of all your relationships at work and at home - the first thing you want to do is assume 100% responsibility.


14. How can I assume responsibility for others?

I didn't say assume 100% responsibility for others. I said assume 100% responsibility for the success, for the quality of the relationship. A lot of relationship experts say that relationships are 50 -50, I say they are 100 - 100. If there is a problem in that relationship and it causes a problem for me, whose problem is it? It's mine! That's 100% responsibility.


15. Even if it's somebody else's fault?

Even if it's somebody else's fault. What that means is that I'm always going to be tuned into whether or not the relationship is working and that is there something that I can do to make the relationship work better. I'm getting a little bit off on a tangent, but this is kind of interesting. I did some research, way back in the early '90s, for I had the chance to go into a couple of large organizations that had product development groups that were failing, but they were full of A+ students from the best engineering schools in the country.

They were smart. I got to ask them "To what do you attribute your participation in the overall collective field performance of this organization?" and the number one answer I got was "I just got put on a bad team", which is justify. After dozens and dozens of interviews it occurred to me we've got this huge mythology in our industry, that the quality of the productivity of the team is somebody else's responsibility or accountability.


16. And you can do nothing about it. If you are on a bad team, you're on a bad team.

Right. If you want to be on a great team, the first tip is assume 100% responsibility for the quality of the team, which means you need to learn a little bit of something of that shared responsibility and about group dynamics and about teams and about how to confront when something isn't going your way and do it appropriately, how to give feedback. So, that's number one. Number two is talk about what the relationship the team and the collaboration is doing in a way that puts you in the same boat together, which essentially means figure out what we're doing together that's bigger than either one of us, requires both of us and none of us can claim individual victory until that thing is done. We talk about the overall interview and about what the interview is going to do at Infoq and for the listeners, we don't talk about your job as the interviewer and my job as the interviewee.


17. That wouldn't work nearly as well.

No, it wouldn't work nearly as well, because then you get focused on why did my job and He sucked.


18. I asked the questions...

Exactly. If we get focused on being in the same boat together and the larger success, then what that means is we are each willing, if we feel a sense of ownership what it means is we are going to be organically willing to fill in the gap, fill in the holes, improve the process. They say that roles on a team are emergent and the reason roles on a team are emergent is because teams are always temporary and they're defined by the larger task and when people feel a sense of getting that thing done, then they step in and do what needs to be done.


19. That's almost counterintuitive to what I've heard, especially in the Agile community, where people say "Can you believe it? They've got this group of people, they learn together, they did the hard part and they became this wonderful team and right after the project is over, they don't keep them together because we've got this great team, they pull them apart!" If I hear correctly what you're saying, is the team is actually the task, not the people. This specific people are temporary around that task.

Absolutely. This is something that I tried to clarify in my book Teamwork is an Individual Skill and that is that organizations, institutions are permanent and they are permanent for a reason and that is to ensure their success. All teamwork is truly temporary and it's always around a task that's larger than any individual that needs to get done.


20. At least for successful teams.

Absolutely. At least for successful teams. A department is not a team, a family is not a team. I think a team is the result of a group of people stepping up to the opportunity of the shared responsibility and it's always temporary. Even if it's the same group of people and they have a new project, a new assignment, the team dynamics get to reform. What's cool is if the group of people have been through trouble and challenge and conflict and breakthrough before, then they usually can set their sights higher and perform better on the next task, but it's still think of it as a new task, therefore it's team instance.

Thanks for asking that about task. The second tip is to identify the task. The third thing to do is to think about and actually talk about what's in it for you and what's in it for me, so individual motivations, what's your win and what's my win. We talk about team as being win-win, but then we have this queasiness about talking about what's in it for you to work with me on this project the next 6 month.


21. You weren't clear what it means for others, that's why, when many hear "Win-win" it's OK, but it's marketing, PR.

Or it's win-win. The truth is that in an institution, there is a glue called performance management that holds bosses and subordinates together and gets subordinates to perform for the boss. I'm being almost profane in speaking about it that way, but that's the dynamic. In peer relationships, there is no glue, there is no fabric that holds us together, except personal interest. The traditional talk back when we were first getting quality teams from the East, from Japan, way back in the 80s and 90s was that you have to subordinate your self interest for the good of the team. Not in John Wayne America, we don't! I think the way it works everywhere is that we join teams where our self interest is advanced and amplified and accelerated. If you can identify, Amr what's in it for you for the success for interviewing Christopher. What's really cool is that we tend to buy in more, that's where we get the commitment.


22. Many times, we're unclear what's in it for us.

I teach people how to ask and I teach them some really interesting conversational tools. To say "So, our job for the next 30 minutes is to make this great interview". What's in it for you to do that? And we talk about that and then you'll ask me and we'll talk about that and in that talk is where this little organic change happens, where something clicks in and we get a felt sense of responsibility and we're more collaborative. The next little tip to think about is "What's in it for you, what's in it for me?" Think about on a larger scale, if you are on a cross functional task force and you've got marketing and engineering and legal in the room, one of the best things you could do it's say "Let's take 20 min and find out what's in it for legal, for us to have successful task force? What's in it for engineering to have a successful task force? What's in it for marketing to have a successful task force?"


23. This isn't just to make us feel good. There is something really behind it.

Absolutely! It's what's going to get them to show up and work. It's got to be in their self-interest. It's got to be of good reasons, not just because the company is giving you a paycheck you should.


24. It sounds like obligation there.

That won't work. Then, I'll leave it with the next tip. The next tip is to learn how to make and keep agreements. The reason for this is I talked about the fabric, the dynamics. Everybody knows what a superior-subordinate relationship is like and you can have a job in one place and you can go to another place and you say "Oh, I recognize it's the same! He can tell me what to do, I can't tell him what to do. He can tell me where to go, I can't tell him where to go. He can judge my work, I can't judge his work. " We know what the fabric of the pyramid is.

The truth is there is no fabric in a collaboration or a team, until we create it and it's created by the stuff called agreements, like time agreements - what does it really mean when we say that we're going to meet at a certain time-, delivery agreements - what does it really mean when we say that we're going to do something - and operating agreements. Do we tell the truth, do we operate from a position of responsibility? The responsibility is always the first agreement I ask any team for. I realize we're all going to screw up, we're going to have thousands of mistakes, I just want the agreement that we are going to do our best to operate from responsibility.

Learning to make and keep agreements and then learning to please those agreements, monitor them, have conversations when they get broken - because they are always going to get broken - is the next thing that you can do.


25. Thank you so much Christopher. Great tips, and thank you for telling us about responsibility process model.

People love to download this poster from my website and hang it up in their conference rooms and offices and bathrooms and at home on refrigerators in their kitchen. You can come to and look for the responsibility process poster and there is free download and you can download the PDF and print all you like. I get stories from all over the world of where people are hanging them up, so send me a story of where you hung your responsibility process poster.

Nov 19, 2009

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Community comments

  • Thanks Amr

    by Christopher Avery,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Amr, thank you for inviting and conducting this interview. It is also a joy to work with you.

    We say this at the tail end of the interview... download a free full-color PDF poster of the Responsibility Process. Make as many copies as you like.

    There's also an innovative e-program for leaders and coaches worldwide who are studying, applying, and mastering this foundational material.

  • Great stuff

    by Dave LeBlanc,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Hi Amr,

    This is truly wonderful stuff, I've heard you talk about this a couple times, and this elaboration was really useful.

    I'm presenting some agile practices to the company I'm working with right now - and facing some fairly run of the mill negative/lukewarm responses. I've found myself occasionally caught in various elements of the lower levels of the responsibility process, so this is a great reminder to let that go - and act from a responsible place and do the best I can with what's available.

    I've also found Agile Adoptions Patterns to be tremendously helpful, big thanks for that!


  • Re: Thanks Amr

    by Radu Marian,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Christopher - thanks for bringing such an interesting subject.

    It reminds me about husband and wife relationships - 50/50 - does not work. It takes 100/100.
    This truth is constantly emphasized at the Weekend to Remember conferences.


  • Re: Thanks Amr

    by Christopher Avery,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Hi Radu,

    You are welcome. I appreciate your interest. And thanks for the url to the weekend to Remember conferences.


  • mp3 not available on this interview

    by Eric Lewin,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Could you fix the mp3 link and reply to this comment when it is fixed.

  • Re: mp3 not available on this interview

    by Diana Baciu,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Hello Eric,

    i have now fixed this issue and the mp3 file is available for download.

    Diana (InfoQ)

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