Dec. 5, 2013

The truth about collective responsibility

When only one person is responsible, everyone else is not responsible!

A statement I hear regularly about collective responsibility, is; “When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible”. These statements usually come from managers, who prefer to have a single person who takes the full responsibility so they can hold one person accountable.

The Gallop organization performed a meta-study of employee engagement and found that high employee engagement results in measurably better profitability, productivity, customer loyalty and quality.

So let’s look at what motivates people in their professional environment, as described by author Dan Pink:

  • Autonomy
  • Purpose
  • Mastery


Boss or Leader

Autonomy is the desire of people to be self-directed. Traditional ways of management leave little room for autonomy. Managing people means directing them, giving instructions and assigning units of work to individuals. This is great if you want compliance, but if you want engagement, self-direction is better. 

To create an autonomous environment where people can self-direct, you need to inspire people, and help them to discover their talents, sometimes talents they were not aware they had. To do this you need leaders, not just managers, who will lead by example and show them the way first, but with the goal of allowing to think about the best way they can do their job. 


Purpose means being part of something that serves something larger than ourselves. When profit motives exceed purpose motives, things can go downhill fast. Dan Pink describes this is his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us that rewarding activities can extinguish motivation, diminish performance, crush creativity, crowd out good behavior, encourage cheating, shortcuts and unethical behavior, become addictive, and foster short-term thinking.

When people have a purpose, it inspires them to take action. When people are really feeling they are part of the bigger goal, they are more likely to be creative and come up with innovative solutions. Leaders should inspire people to achieve long term goals, not financial ones, but by painting a vision of a goal to work towards, a greater goal of which they want to be part of.


Mastery is the urge to get better at things that matter. Whether it’s learning a new language or being part of a project that challenges or inspires, people want to get better at what they do. Leaders should inspire and encourage people to learn and provide an environment where they can learn.

A side effect of learning is that it stimulates your intelligence and creativity. There are studies that show that taxi drivers in London have more developed brains than ordinary Londoners. Having to learn new routes and react to unforeseen situations is stimulating their brain to develop.

It seems to make a lot of sense for organisations to have people working for them who are willing to learn and get more intelligent by doing so, doesn’t it? 

But how does this fit in Scrum?

There’s a lot of talk about self-organising teams in Scrum. To properly understand how that works, we need to involve the team in the larger picture. A good user story defines a problem in such a way that the solution can be implemented end-to-end, cutting through all layers of the architectural cake. This requires that different team members can bring different experiences and expertise. In Scrum we give teams autonomy, by enabling teams to self-organise. People who are closer to the problem are more likely to make the right decisions, and cross-functional Scrum teams (should) have all the knowledge they need to come up with solutions together.

We define the boundaries to the problem definition by defining acceptance criteria to User Stories. The team can then come up with the most optimal solution within these boundaries, sometimes referred to as thinking inside the box.

But setting these restrictions on User Stories alone is not enough. How can we expect people to come up with the best possible solution when they don’t have a clear understanding of the long term product direction? By defining a engaging Product Vision which sets this clear direction, teams can understand the User Story priority in the Product Backlog and see how each User Story contributes to achieve the vision. Better yet, they can use their combined technical expertise to suggest alternatives which are easier to implement and deliver almost the same value, resulting in a higher return on investment. They can even suggest to add User Stories to the Product Backlog which are quick win from a technical perspective.

When I worked with a mobile messaging provider, the company wanted to add a feature to show the people with whom you exchanged messages most, at the top of your contact list. The team immediately saw all kinds of technical complexities: during what period? should this be stored on the server? is the length of the conversation a factor, etc. They then realised that listing the last five people you exchanged messages with would bring almost the same user value at 1/10th of the cost. The team was able to propose this idea because they understood the user needs and felt that they were also responsible for the return on investment. 

When people are trusted to come up with solutions autonomously, they will begin to feel more responsible for their work, inspiring them to be creative, do research, and have a need to master the skills needed to do their job. When teams are really taking ownership to achieve their Sprint goal and product vision together, this will mean that they will put the team’s purpose before their individual targets. This requires them to look outside of their own areas of expertise and see where they can contribute best, and will, step by step, acquire mastery in other fields beside their own expertise.

To get back to the original statement; “When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible”. I want to turn this around; “When only one person is responsible, everyone else is not responsible!”

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Niels Verdonk

Agile preacher, I work with teams and try to facilitate a motivating, inspiring and fun environment to deliver quality software.
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Image of nverdo

Niels Verdonk

Agile preacher, I work with teams and try to facilitate a motivating, inspiring and fun environment to deliver quality software.

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