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Operating From Above the Line

September 11, 2009

When something goes wrong all humans tend to respond to the problem in the same way, no matter how big or small. At Agile 2009 Christopher Avery described what he called the Responsibility Process – five mental states that people naturally enter before reaching a true level of responsibility. But keep in mind that not everyone is able to successfully move out of all states of mind prior to responsibility, as Avery described. In order to be successful at this one must apply these techniques themselves, and recognize that they are in a specific state of mind. The graphic below illustrates the five states of mind.

The Responsibility Process

Lay Blame
After a problem is discovered a person will naturally try to account for the failure. They will try to externalize the cause as laying outside of themselves. Their first response is more-or-less, “there is no way that I caused this issues, so it must have been someone else.”

Justify
Once it is realized that the problem may have been caused by oneself, a person will try to justify why it happened. They are still trying to externalize the problem when they make excuses such as, “well there is no wonder that broke since I was being rushed to complete it.”

Shame
Once you move past trying to justify the cause of the problem a person will start to acknowledge that it was in fact their fault. While in this state of mind people tend to beat themselves up with statements such as, “oh I totally screwed that up. I can’t believe I made that mistake. It was totally my fault.” We must be careful not to confuse this with responsibility – it is actually self-shame.

Obligation
After self-shaming oneself a person will start to feel that that yes, they caused the problem, but the circumstances they were in didn’t give them any other choice. People will make statements alluding to having no control, or feelings that they are in handcuffs. “Well, that is just the way we were told to do it so I did it”, is a telling statement.

Responsibility
If one can move past obligation a person will move above the “line” and reach responsibility. The previous four states of mind are considered non-learning states – or to put it bluntly, we are stupid while in these states. We are in a coping stage and any decisions we make will probably be poor. But as we move above the line into responsibility we will find ourselves back in a “learning state”. It is here that we can make good decisions, and can start to produce value. Hearing things like, “the problem happened, but now let’s figure out how to fix it”, is a key indicator that someone is operating from responsibility.

The two grey stages in the diagram are not states of mind, but are additional stages. We are usually in a denial, believing that everything is fine and no problems exist. However once a problem is identified some people will not be able to cope. For instance the mental anguish of shame and obligation can lead a person to check-out without reaching a proper resolution. By quitting, a person does not learn anything and will likely be faced with the same problem in the future.

In order to get above the line, there are three keys. Intention states that a person must be committed to doing something. A person must also be aware that they are in one of the levels. To do this we must look for it in ourselves, and ask for the help of others to identify where we are. Avery suggested recognizing how you feel in each of these stages, and use that feeling in the future to help identify your state of mind. And finally we must confront the problem – you cannot interact with something until you are able to face it.

Obviously this stuff is based on behavioural science and it can be easy for technical people to dismiss. But be honest with yourself and think about these states of mind the next time you face a problem (this works in all aspects of your life – personal and professional). I know that my first reaction to a problem is to assume that someone else caused it. The key is to realize this and get past it. As one gets better at identifying what stage we are in, the quicker we can move from state to state. We always want to be producing value, so the goal is to operate from responsibility as quickly as possible.

By Hemant J. Naidu

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