Agile 2011: Christopher Avery on The Responsibility Process

I think the most rewarding session I went to at Agile 2011 was Coaching Success: Getting People to Take Responsibility & Demonstrate Ownership by Christopher Avery.  There were a number of reasons to attend this session, including a recommendation from a friend based on a session at Agile 2009 and the applicability of the topic as our team becomes more focused on assisting our growing customer base. I didn’t enter with a notion of what to expect or exaction what I wanted and this likely put me in the right frame of mind for his introduction to The Responsibility Process.


The responsibility process consists of a number of levels of progressive awareness:

  • blame: looking outward and pointing at others as the source of your problems: they didn’t deliver their part of the project in time for me to complete my work
  • justification: finding reasons in your environment for why things are the way they are: my computer wasn’t working well and it slowed me down
  • shame: an inward laying of blame or guilt for the situation: why can’t I work harder and get this done?
  • obligation: the sense that you have no choice but to get something done: I have to get this done because people are expecting it
  • responsibility: the target state of owning up to the situation and actively engaging from a positive position of power: I will complete the project because it gives me the opportunity to master this skill and opens doors to new ideas

There are two associated states that you also need to be aware of:

  • denial: you do not believe that a problem exists or choose to ignore its existence.  this is an avoidance mechanism that only serves to delay
  • quit: an means to avoid the pain of coping with the other states. this is a passive attempt to resolve the issue but still leaves the underlying problem unresolved and likely to repeat.

Once you have gained awareness of this mental model of responsibility, there are three keys to engaging to successfully reach an empowered state of responsibility:

  • intention: you must enter a mindset where you are willing to act from a position of responsibility
  • awareness: you must recognize the problem you are addressing and your mental state relative to the problem
  • confrontation: you must look inward to discover the facts of the problem so you can confront it and yourself to find ideas and solutions

My takeaways:

  • this is very much a thought process that comes from within; you can introduce people to the concepts and coach them, but the ultimate decision on how far to go lies with the individual
  • the most effective way to foster responsibility and ownership is to demonstrate it yourself; actions really do speak louder than words
  • I now have a better understanding and framework from which to understand situations
    • our local agile community: responsibility
    • cooking for the kids: obligation (something to work on!)
    • biking with the kids to school: responsibility
    • my stumbling squash game: justification (lucky bounce!) but moving quickly back to responsibility

Below is a lightning talk that I gave to the Ottawa Scrum Users Group to summarize the key points and point people in the right direction to do their own exploring.

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