How not to starve a horse 🐎

Accountability and decision making

There’s an old saying that “the fastest way to starve a horse is to assign two people to feed it.” It speaks to a failure of collective responsibility, the kind of apathy that has each individual within a group with dispersed responsibility hoping that somebody else will do the work. It's the kind of thing that is used to justify having a single individual accountable for each aspect of the business. I hear, not infrequently, from senior leaders who believe it's important to have one person to be responsible, “so if the whole project screws up I know who to fire.”

As appealing as the saying is, in my view it betrays a misunderstanding of horse feeding, let alone of more complex group activities.

The magnificence of human organisations is the way in which they are so much more than the sum of their parts. They are systems: complex, interdependent, emergent. It makes no more sense to blame a single person within an organisation for its failure than it does to single out a single component as being responsible for the failure of a poorly designed team.

One for the sports fans

Consider a football team.

When that team wins, does the true aficionado give all the credit to the person who scored the winning goal, or rather to the way the whole team worked together as a beautiful whole? And when the team loses, is it sensible to find a single player to blame and to fire? Of course, poor performers are pulled from the team. But not because they are blamed single-handedly for a loss; rather, because they are holding the team back from being an even greater whole.

And when, finally, one individual needs to be held accountable for a run of poor performance, who normally takes the fall? Is it the star striker? The goalie? The on-field captain?

Of course not. It’s the coach.

Sometimes that’s pure scapegoating, but it actually betrays a strong understanding of how a team works. The coach is not in the team, they are outside the team. If the team is a system, then the coach is its designer. And if the system is consistently performing poorly, you don’t blame the parts. No, you blame the designer.

Horses again

Hopefully I’m not flogging a dead horse. After all, the aim is to keep it alive.

Imagine you are the notional manager to whom the implicit advice is addressed: do not assign two people to feed a horse. If the horse dies, is it the fault of Person A? Or perhaps Person B? No, dear manager, it is your fault, because you have designed a faulty system.

What would they have us do?

You could of course just fire one of the people and assign the other to feed the horse. But what if they are sick? Or want to take a holiday? Or just not very good at their job? Or perhaps you don’t have one horse but one hundred, and one person doesn’t have the capacity to feed them all.

Or you could assign Person A to feed the horse on Mondays through Wednesdays, and Person B Thursdays through Sundays. That wouldn’t be too bad, but the system is still fragile: if Person B is sick on a Friday, the horse doesn’t get fed.

It is foolish to constrain your system design by insisting on strict individual accountability. Instead, as a leader it is your job to design a system that is optimised for reliable horse feeding.

There are a lot of things you could do here. You could give two people the responsibility, but design a failsafe protocol for negotiating who will do the feeding on any given day. Or you could decide in your daily standup. Or whatever. And if you do it right, the horse gets fed even if somebody is sick, or on holiday. The more complex the organisational system, the more degrees of freedom you have in designing the processes and protocols for ensuring correct team performance.

And of course, there is the matter of culture. If you foster a collective sense that not letting horses starve is at the core of the team’s mission, and give them the flexibility to own their success, you no longer need to design the entire system yourself. Your team can optimize their own processes. They can make things better. They can share ideas with each other. They are empowered and incentivized to help the other succeed.

That, ultimately, is what a team is. And if it applies to the feeling of horses, I think it most certainly applies to the running of modern organizations.

…and back to sports teams

You’re the coach. If your team is not winning, sure you might want to sub some players in and out. But the blame, the accountability for the success of the team, rests with you. The folks on the team are actually out there, kicking the ball and whatnot. You’re sitting on your butt watching the game. You have only one way to deliver value is the role, and that’s to make sure the team runs out on to the field as the best-designed team you can possibly make it. To use another common aphorism, the difference between the team of champions and the champion team is the coach.

If you’re really looking for a single person to fire if a team fails… look in the mirror.

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