Authority, responsibility, and the chilling effect of an imbalance between the two

Authority and responsibility, ideally, are two sides of the same coin.

Invariably, they become imbalanced, and one can trace a lot of personal trauma, and organizational churn to this fact.  If one has too much authority and does not take responsibility to the same degree, they can become narcissistic, entitled, and ultimately highly destructive.

Conversely, if one has too much responsibility and not the authority to match, they can become depressed, beleaguered, and destroyed.

Individuals must be vigilant in ensuring their own responsibility and authority are matching, in every aspect of their personal and professional lives, and equally organizations must seek out and find these imbalances and correct them at every level.

How does one know they are imbalanced one way or the other?
Too Much Authority  (The Emperor has No Clothes)

Are you a CEO or project lead? Ask yourself, honestly, the following questions.  If you’re an employee or acting in a role, think about these questions with regard to your leader.  Also, as a CEO think about this with relation to your direct reports and other project leadership staff organizationally.  Think of your corporate policy that either enables or does not prevent these things.

  • Do you often find yourself blaming your staff for company failings?
  • Do you never accept blame?
  • Do you think apologizing is a sign of weakness?
  • Do you find you’re firing and hiring often but fail to notice the one common denominator (YOU)?
  • Do you hear the same criticisms a lot, particularly from exiting partners and employees?
  • Are you often frustrated with your staff, thinking you “can’t find good help these days!”?
  • Do you find your most trusted, close advisers almost never disagree with you?

You, then, are a likely candidate for having too much authority and you are not taking enough responsibility for your own decisions.  You need to correct this.  Encourage dissent among your most trusted advisers.  Reward, do not punish a critical viewpoint of your position or vision.  Show strength by admitting your failings openly and in front of everyone else so they will feel free to do the same.  Demonstrate leadership by taking actions to improve yourself and encourage your team by example.

The importance of Dissent – Look to the Ants!

We often think we need to kill carpenter ants invading our home.  The truth is, carpenter ants show you where dry rot is in your home, and you should respect them, and follow them, and then remove the dry rot.  Don’t kill the ants, just watch as they leave once the dry rot is gone.  Critical voices in our teams are carpenter ants, they give you objections internally so you can handle them before you take the idea to market and consumers will correct you the hard way. (In the case of Carpenter ants, killing them instead results in your house falling down)

Too much responsibility is unfortunate with few options

The other case of too much responsibility and not enough authority is much simpler, but less positive.  The first step is to be a squeaky wheel and let your management know, and if your direct report doesn’t help, escalate as high as you can to sound the alarm.    Ideally management is always asking if you need more resources or decision making power to do your job, and at these moments its important to answer honestly or you’ll never get the help you need.  Unfortunately barring this, the only option is to move on to another organization, and end the relationship.   Carrying on in a situation where your authority doesn’t match your responsibility is so stressful and damaging – that no job or relationship is worth it.  It is a toxic situation and you need to end it.

The orphaned child – too much responsibility with little or no authority

A good example of too much responsibility and not enough authority might be a child with a drug addicted parent.  The child cannot feed themselves, or elect to do necessary things like paying the bills because they cannot access banking information.  Like a poor child in this situation, anyone in this situation needs immediate help or at the very least they need to get far away from the toxic situation as soon as they can.


6 project management best practices

  1. Don’t make Gantt charts.  Projects change rapidly, and if they aren’t, the should be as they need to iterate in the face of new data.  Gantt charts inherently imply that a project is static because they are inherently static, and making a dynamic Gantt chart is incredibly difficult unless you have really good task monitoring in real time, in which case it wouldn’t be something you “make” it would be something you “design, build, and implement” and becomes a project in and of itself.  Track projects with task lists, understand and document dependencies and how they change, show milestones (simple) and meet *regularly* (see #4)
  2. Assign tasks to “Roles” instead of actual people.  This ensures resources (people) can flexibly take on different roles, and unoccupied or poorly fitted roles can be identified and corrected.
  3. RESPECT THE ROLE HIERARCHY.  I cannot stress that enough. Do not do end runs around people or short circuit the role reporting structure because you’re in a rush or are normally “the boss” on other projects. Ensure the hierarchy of roles (see #3) is available to everyone.  Ignore outside hierarchies of people, as project roles trump organizational titles!  This way, when acting in a certain role, a person can know who to directly report to, and who to escalate to if they are finding their direct report is unwilling or unable to help them.  Conversely, senior resources can understand that taking on certain roles might mean *as that role* they will report to someone who, perhaps, they normally oversee.
  4. Meet regularly and keep the meetings short and on topic.  Meetings should have a representative of every role, and only current tasks should be discussed.  Talk about achievements (recent ones) and quickly move on to what will be accomplished between now and the next reporting meeting.  Capture those commitments and use them in the next meeting.
  5. Authority and responsibility are two sides of the same coin.  Never associate authority with privilege and entitlement.  Authoritative roles are responsible for the most, and, when illustrating hierarchy, try putting the highest authority at the bottom of the list, and the least authoritative roles at the very top.  This will help illustrate that those with the most authority are literally shouldering the project and need to be prepared to take responsibility for it to the exact extent they have authority.
  6. You are there to support your reports, and those that report to them.  You need to consider their mistakes as your mistakes, and empower, train, and nourish them as you’d nourish your own body.

Agree? Disagree? Have personal stories to share?  Comments are top left…

2 steps to invent great products

  1. Ask people what they want.
  2. Give them what they asked for.

In my experience, this is really what inventing new products is all about.   A simpler way to put it is the old adage, “Necessity is the mother of invention”.  Having invented many, many failed products and a few modestly successful ones, I’ve learned it really comes down to that.

The other thing to note is that process never really stops.  You need to keep asking them, keep paying attention to what your customers are saying, and keep refining what you’re providing based on their desires and needs.

To clarify, sometimes asking isn’t as straight forward as a question, it may involve making some kind of minimum version of your vision, or as Eric Ries, author of the Lean Startup puts it, the Minimum Viable Product.  This could be a working prototype, or simply a statement like “An orange that only gets juice in your mouth and costs twice as much as a regular orange but is otherwise identical” written on a piece of paper.  You can then ask people “well?  What do you think?”

The really amazing thing is how many inventors and start up folks simply don’t get this at all.  In my experience, the first tendency is to have an epiphany and immediately start spending $$ and time making that exact thing in the dream.  Asking people is often the *last* thing inventors do, and almost invariably this results in a bunch of stuff off to storage or the dump.

6 things to consider when changing your brand

When considering a re-branding of your company or yourself, consider these things as they may help save a lot of time and money in the process and ensure it truly makes the re-brand a success.

  1. Make your brand about what you offer.  Look at it from your customers perspective, and state what *they* care about.  Solve their problem with your tag line.  Say what you do!  Don’t make customers into detectives who have to decrypt your brand to figure out what you do.
  2. Don’t talk about yourself.  Using only your name as a brand, or your personal quirks, whimsy, or likes, is unhelpful.  Talk about the actual value you bring.  Don’t list features – list solutions to the problems of your prospects.  “Smith Inc.” = bad.  “Smith Engineering Inc.” = better.  “Structural Engineers Inc.” = best.  Choose boring over cute with your brand, and save the creativity and cuteness for your actual service.
  3. Lead with the explosion!  Say your best value first, and even integrate that into your logo, name, and tagline.   Don’t bury your most popular element in the bottom of your bullet points or on slide 26.  Make it slide 1, or better yet make it the logo and put it on every slide!
  4. Make sure the brand is easy to say, spell and understand how it relates to what you do.  Don’t be mysterious.
  5. Own the Dot COM.  Get the social media handles.  DO NOT use a brand you cant own the dot com of.  Even if your brand is a long phrase like “how to cope with change” (ha ha) be sure to OWN the DOT COM, above all else.
  6. Eat your own dog food.  If you are pitching something you can obviously use in your own personal brand or corporate identity – be sure you’re implementing it to the letter.  A good way to tell if a restaurant is good is if the Chef and staff eat there often, right?
  7. Test it!  Make sure the brand works in other cultures and doesn’t offend anyone.  Test it with different audiences of groups outside of your circle of friends.   Run it by comedians to see how it can be ridiculed!

5 steps to truly absorbing knowledge from books and speeches.

Ever read a book and promptly forget it once you’re finished? How about a speech? Here’s a way to capture the information and retain it.

  1. Remove the anecdotes. Go through the book or speech transcript and “redact” everything that is an anecdote, or a metaphor, or a personal story. Just go at it with a sharpie! If that makes you queasy, try just creating a new word file and copy the non anecdotal or metaphorical parts down word for word.
  2. Restate what is left in your own words.
  3. Edit what you stated to make it as short and concise as possible.
  4. Write your own personal anecdote or metaphor. Relate it to your personal history, or something you read or understood in literature, a movie, or on TV. “Its like when Homer Simpson … ” is even a good exercise.
  5. Share your edited version of that simplified concept on social media and ask others to provide their own personal anecdotes and stories as in step 4 above.

This exercise is a great way to not only read a book, but to truly understand and adopt its value into your own life and see the result. Try it on even just a page or two and comment below about the result!

Note: When listening to a video or podcast you like, try being a “transcriptionist”. Write down the words being said or type them on your laptop. Its great typing practice, and it also really helps you absorb and retain what’s being said.

12 ways to cope with change

Change is tough, and coping with it is more important than ever. Here are 12 ways I’ve learned to cope with change over the years.

As you read these, please remember that this list of ways to cope with change apply at a personal, family, group, organization and even corporate enterprise level.

  1. Seek out change – > embrace the change -> control the change -> be the change.

    Just when you feel comfortable and things seem to be humming along is the perfect time to seek change.  Seek the change – poke your head outside of your life or organization and look around.  Seek different perspectives.  When you find change, don’t see it as a threat or problem – like cracks in the hull.  Instead, try to see it as opportunities like finding diamonds in a mine.

  2. “Surf The Chaos”, don’t let it drown you. Enjoy it!

    When you feel overwhelmed with tasks, details, and problems, find a way to prioritize them. Use triage like they do in an emergency room, and solve them one at a time.  This is how you metaphorically climb on to the surf board.  The problems may seem like an ocean, but dealing with them one at a time and celebrating each success no matter how small is a way to rise above them.  Keep your eye on the destination, and remind yourself of the long term goal. Accept that not all the problems need to get resolved in order to reach your goal, necessarily.  Accept those things as something you can come back to later, and move on.  Surf’s up!

  3. Listen, Listen, Listen. Listen more than you talk.

    My grandmother used to say “There’s a reason God gave you two ears and only one mouth”. Join meetings and try not to talk. Be proud of yourself for saying less.  Celebrate moments you held your tongue and let someone else speak.  It is always satisfying when someone else articulates a concept that they learned from you in a meeting.  That obviously can’t happen if you keep talking over them, or correcting them mid sentence.   When it’s your turn, take breaks often, and ask your audience to respond or provide their insights to make sure you are being understood.  Above all, maintain eye contact with the person speaking, and keep your mouth closed until they are finished their idea.  Better still, wait a beat after they are done talking and then start with your response.

  4. Subject all your own ideas to considerable scrutiny.

    Facebook gives us a great way to do this. By simply posting “what’s on your mind” and keeping comments open, you’ll get feedback that you can use to see if your ideas are resonant with a friendly audience. Often they will help you understand if your “fly is down” and what you can do to change before you take the idea into the public sphere.

  5. Surround yourself with people who are positive – but will argue with you fearlessly.

    If no one ever challenges you – you’re in a bubble and need to wake up.  That said, if you find a certain person or audience is a source of nothing but criticism, you may need to keep that group at bay and only consult with them when you’ve had a chance to creatively explore your ideas in a positive environment.  Edward DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats  are widely used to vet ideas in many organizations. I always liked the fact that the “black hat” is the only “negative” one. This demonstrates that kind of thinking has a place, but should be used sparsely and not until the end.

  6. Intuition is great, but knowing how we came to the decision is more useful.
    Data forms intuition, both human and artificial

    When we access our intuition, we don’t know *why* we’re right, but we are highly confident we are. It is assumed that our experience is the reason – but we often have to act quickly, hoping our intuition is correct.

    Machine learning works similarly, in that we provide a computer with a large amount of data, say, many photos of people accompanied by specific facts for each photo I.E. demographics and current mood in the photo.  We show the computer a new photo and ask it something about the person in the photo, like how old they are, or what their current mood is.  Usually, the process is highly accurate, but we can’t really access the specific steps the computer took to deduce the information.  The process itself is a black box to us.

    In Deep Learning, Artificial Intuition and the quest for AGI, Carlos E. Perez discusses these concepts in more detail as similarities between human and artificial intuition are explored.

    Deconstructing intuition would make it easier to replicate and share with others

    The challenge is, sometimes it’s important to be able to prove to others beyond simply “intuition” why we’re correct. If we could, it would be much easier to evangelize the idea. We could then more easily sell the logic used to make the decision without the need for them to also have to trust our “gut”.    Therefore, if you can document the steps and understand why your intuition is telling you something – you’re going to be a much more powerful influence.  You’ll have a scale-able, repeatable solution that will spread much more effectively.

    Some ways to deconstruct intuition

    How do we deconstruct our intuition?  Nothing, in my experience, helps me more than having to teach a class on something I originally solved using mostly intuition.  Writing out a lesson plan, and creating steps that other people will be able to follow is a great way to deconstruct intuition.   Writing a journal recalling past events is another way, and simply discussing what happened with others involved is additionally a way to do the detective work in deconstructing the “gut” decision and turning into something you can teach, share, and spread.

  7. Say “I Don’t Know” .

    Get to a point where you are VERY comfortable saying that. Practice it in a mirror. Relish being wrong or ignorant of something: it’s the moment you get to learn something.

  8. Baby steps.

    When you start to address change, take small, methodical steps, and be sure to congratulate yourself for every triumph no matter how small.

  9. Love who you are.

    Celebrate your achievements.  Keep your awards on the walls. Know your history and where you came from.  Make your working environment a place that makes you proud to be you.  Re-read your resume often, especially the references and testimonials.  Write and maintain case studies of your past work.

  10. Practice.

    Your experience puts the right words in your mouth at the right time, so curate it, grow it, and protect it.  I have often found myself in a challenging situation rising to the occasion much to my own surprise – words pouring out of my mouth that I almost didn’t know were there to access.  This comes from practicing and experience.  As when you’re driving, and skills become automatic, this can happen when you’ve practiced responding to situations many times, eventually it becomes second nature, but you have to practice a lot for that to occur – and mess up too!

  11. Be healthy.

    Change is hardest on you when your body is compromised and unable to help you cope.  Don’t get drunk. Don’t do drugs. Get up early. Go to bed early. Keep a clean house, office, and car. Dress well, and change it up a lot. Eat a diverse and healthy diet that changes up all the time. Be proud of yourself.

  12. Notice traditions and habits – and change them up.

    If you notice you’ve always done something a certain way, do it a different way. Take a different path. Again, seek out change, embrace the change, control the change, be the change.



I hope this article was helpful in some way.  Feel free to comment and if you like, you can read more about me here