Decentralizing Responsibility: Creating Nets from Nooses

When responsibility is focused on one person or entity, it's a single rope bearing all the weight. Is that neatly tied knot slowly turning into a noose around the organization's neck? When purposefully twisted into an interconnected web, the resulting net protects against falls and survives considerable stress.

Accountability factors into every phase of an organization's operations. Whether it's an administrative function, daily operations, crisis response, or project management, the responsibility falls somewhere. When there's a break in that body of responsibility, someone has to pick up the pieces. It's not only a preoccupation with failure; it's also about stacking the deck of creativity.

The bulk of what I've learned about leadership, supervision, administrative duties, and project management is a result of my assignment to my police department's firearms training unit. But as I look back on all the lessons, they seem to circle back to a central theme: decentralizing responsibility.

If your organization is looking at decentralizing responsibility, I offer these considerations:

SELL THE WHY. Explain the value in flattening the hierarchy. Decentralization breeds resiliency, adaptability, confidence, diversity, and variety from different perspectives. It safeguards against failure and procrastination through peer pressure and shared accountability. It's a continuity plan for: retirement, vacation, sickness, pregnancy, employment or contract separation, reassignment, promotion, or transfer. Decentralization can broaden the knowledge of specialists, by requiring they learn the duties and functions of other "silos." It promotes a learning environment, where leaders become flexible and responsive to change. Lastly, it builds stronger teams through cross-pollination and maintaining a united purpose and culture of co-creation.

CREATE A DEPTH CHART. Who will take the field when your all-star quarterback gets hurt? At some point, a person or entity who maintains sole control will be unavailable. Backup plans aren't a luxury; they are mandatory. To keep your organization running smoothly, someone has to fill in. Depending on the function, that "second-stringer" can be a peer, a subordinate, or a supervisor. Be sure this person has the credentials, qualifications, or certifications necessary to take over. Quit ignoring the possibilities; it's a sure path to failure.

Somewhere along the way, you were given a chance. You may call it "seizing opportunity," but let's face it...someone helped along the way. There is someone in your organization who's standing in line for more responsibility and a bigger role (maybe yours!). When is a better time than now to start preparing him or her to take the torch? Consider these dimensions of development:
  1. Train them in the requisite skills, techniques, tasks, and capabilities.
  2. Educate them in understanding and application of concept, principle, and vision.
  3. Mentor them in character, judgement, values, and priorities.
DESIGN SHARING SYSTEMS. Team responsibility means team access. Hoarding information, resources, and updates is centralizing. On the flip side, unrestricted access can have related legal, security, or privacy issues. While some data and plans are sensitive and requires a certain level of protection, a balance must be found. What happens when a person with "need-to-know" clearance all of a sudden....needs to know?

Distributing keys for locked offices, file cabinets, or desks drawers might not be completely reasonable. Some options might include tamper-proof "In Case of Emergency" access points or remotely-controlled electronic fob systems.

Saving digital files in email accounts or behind private user profiles is dangerous. It unnecessarily isolates information from others. Remote cloud storage (or server sites) is gaining popularity for team projects and resource sharing. For example, when I go on the road lecturing or teaching, I ensure access to my materials and documents via cloud/internet, flash drive, and laptop computer. My partners also have access, should I become unavailable. Some may argue cloud storage is centralized. I agree; we need to be replicating data in separate, but accessible, systems. Multiple members can edit, add, and change shared "working documents" for all to see...then maintain locally-saved versions for added protection.

Passwords are a separate conversation. How does your organization handle corporate social media, general business email, and website access? One simple answer is a rare, hard-to-find, low tech, old school value: trust.

COMMUNICATE. Team members must share a vision or sense of purpose. This is about having deep discussions and debates about a function's why and how. Shared priorities, goals, and strategies guide each member's decision and actions. Open communication is the path to intimately understanding these issues. 

Information sharing is critical for decentralized functions and organizations. This participation can take the form of hi-tech or caveman tools. For example, I communicate with my international partners via video conference. With email, I'm conscious to use CC and/or BCC functions to keep those in my depth chart and chain-of-command informed of status, plans, agreements, and expectations. In other roles, I rely upon coffee breaks, face-to-face briefings, or scribbled notes on a whiteboard.

Communication updates are not only respectful of the recipient, but for the sender as well. It may seem as a bother, but there's a newfound appreciation of these reports when one finds him/herself having to unexpectedly assume command. I've worked too hard to let my efforts go to waste.

Decentralizing responsibility is about developing a culture of trust, leadership. resiliency, adaptability, and reliability. Analyze your organization to see where you can flatten hierarchy, encourage variety and diversity, nurture mutual trust, distribute accountability, develop redundancies, and grow leaders.

Maybe your organization is hanging responsibility on a mighty strong rope. But over time, all cords knot up. I'd rather find myself tangled in a safety net of contingencies than with a noose of over-confidence around my neck.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedIn


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