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InfoQ Book Review: The Responsibility Virus

| by Deborah Hartmann Preuss on Sep 10, 2007. Estimated reading time: 1 minute |
It's been said before: good process won't fix a bad team. But why are some teams and organizations more difficult than others? In this InfoQ book review Deborah Hartmann suggests that the wall we're banging our heads against may be created by what author Roger Martin calls The Responsibility Virus, a pernicious infection running on fear which undermines nominal efforts to work more collaboratively. Martin agrees with what many Agile coaches also teach: a change of attitude is essential to the success of our efforts to become more collaborative, and this extends out into the wider organization of which the team is a living part. With its practical thinking tools, which can be gradually applied, The Responsibility Virus: How Control Freaks, Shrinking Violets and the Rest of Us Can Harness the Power of True Partnership will be of particular interest to coaches, change agents and others working to sow organisational change, whether that work focuses up, down or across the corporate org chart.

(c) Roger Martin

Roger Martin, Dean of the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, is a Harvard MBA and previously directed Monitor Company, a US strategy consulting firm, where he also established Monitor University. During his long career in corporate consulting, Martin realized that poor decision-making, even when endemic in an organization, actually began at the level of individual behaviour. Framed in this way, the Virus no longer is simply "their problem," but rather it is something in which we are all complicit.

One thing that makes the book interesting is its assertion that it really does "take two to tango", and that treatment of the Virus only requires that one party "stop dancing" by using the simple Responsibility Virus tools in conversation. The tools address both the over-responsible and the under-responsible party, and can be applied from either end of the dynamic to start shifting interactions toward true collaboration. Though Martin suggests that the tools can be most powerful when used openly by a whole team, the tools can also be quietly applied by individuals in individual conversations.

Read the InfoQ book review: The Responsibility Virus Helps Fear Undermine Collaboration, by Deborah Hartmann.

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How to implement? by Amr Elssamadisy

Deb - this obviously sounds like a very interesting book - thank you for the review!

I suppose I will learn the answers to these question by reading the book - but until then:

It sounds like success ultimately resides in the individual. Each individual must use and learn about these tools. Is my reading accurate?

If so, does the book suggest how to do so? All the successful teams I've seen (Agile or not) had great individuals that new how to work together and get things done. Is this a learned ability or an inherited talent?

Re: How to implement? by Deborah Hartmann

"How to implement" is in the 7-step approach mentioned in my review with a link to the book's website that explains a little further.

But how does one start using the Responsibility Virus tools? I'd suggest a book study group, where people can discuss how it applies in their own context, exchange stories about their use of the tools and celebrate/commiserate as appropriate :-)

How to run a book study? Ah, I'm glad you asked!

Joshua Kerievsky of Industrial Logic created the original "Design Patterns" book study groups, in which a group lays out a set of meetings (could be a weekly meeting, lunch, supper) in which they will cover the whole book, and they take turns leading the discussion each week. His approach is inspired by the classical method of seminars conducted at schools like Oxford and St John's College. There's more to it, he documented how to do the whole thing in his Knowledge Hydrant [pdf] patterns (the image is one of drinking from a fire hose, I believe :-)

For real examples of how others have run book reading groups, have a look at the sites for these book studies: Design Patterns, and Fearless Change.

Learning this way does more than build knowledge - it builds teams and fosters collaboration. It's all good.

Re: How to implement? by Deborah Hartmann

Oh, and: yes, application of the solution to the Responsibility Virus is at the level of the individual. However, the author indicates there is synergy to be had in doing it as a group - it helps create a new language for talking more neutrally about responsiblity (rather than just pointing the finger, in the comical image above :-)

NLP? by Kevin Rutherford

Deb - very thorough review, thanks!
It sounds as if the tools rely on NLP (visualizing, re-framing, etc). Do they?

Re: NLP? by Deborah Hartmann

Hi Kevin. NLP isn't mentioned, but I will ask the author if he answers my outstanding email message :-)

Re: "the new failures will be at the margin of our capabilities" by Deborah Hartmann

From the end of the review, above:
The Responsibility Virus produces hopeless failures resulting from extreme mismatches in capabilities and responsibilities, which leads to cover-up rather than learning. Failures under the new set of governing values - I predict - will be failures at the margins of our capabilities... from this failure we will be able to learn immensely, because our analysis and reflection won't be circumscribed by fear. [Martin, p.269]
I asked Roger about this guess, asking what has he discovered about this since the book was published:
This is how I attempt to live my life and I have found it an enjoyable way to live it. I try as best I can to aim for tasks that are at the edge of my capacity as a person and therefore embody a reasonably high probability of failure. I think that this approach has helped me get better and has been enjoyable even in failure. An example would relate to our recent success in attracting Richard Florida to the Rotman School and getting major funding for a new research institute. Accomplishing this was at the absolute margin of my capabilities. I kind of know that for sure because I tried it about four years ago and failed – then I got Richard on board with the idea but couldn’t get the Ontario research funding apparat to come along. It was a very painful failure. But it taught me the things I needed to know to succeed this time.

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