A Little Learning Is A Dang’rous Thing

Last night I tweeted:

One of the most intelligent guys I know (and just reconnected with) Abiodun Ofuya, responded with:

Leave it to Abiodun to pull in both Greek mythology and Alexander Pope.  He’s been doing this since we were in high school 20+ years ago.  The message came through loud and clear.  From Alexander’s Pope’s poem “An Essay On Criticism”:

A little learning is a dang’rous thing

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring

Little learning is often worse than ignorance as little learning gives a false sense of understanding and prevents additional learning whereas ignorance is simply that, ignorance. Little learning is one of the more common conditions present in many organizations that they are unaware of.  Little learning leads to the improper implementation of methods, practices and measures.  The moment we believe that “we’ve got it” or have become “an expert”, we may be dangerously close to “little learning”. Regardless of where this “little learning” lies within the organization, it is often leads to the creation of bad system.  As Dr. Deming said:

A bad system will defeat a good person every time

So what’s the antidote:

Drink deep

Make a personal commitment to continual learning.  Allow your existing mental models to be challenged.  Consult those who are further along the learning path.  As the child of two academics, I believe (based on my personal experience) that learning never ends and I’m always amazed by the new stuff I learn even in areas where I’ve been highly engaged and involved with for a long time. Remember that:

…drinking largely sobers us again

Keep learning.

* See Pierian Spring for more information.



Accountability, Say What?

Accountability is defined in the dictionary as:

The quality or state of being accountable; especially : an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions

Responsibility is often used as a synonym for accountability however frameworks such as RACI distinguish between the two words stating that those who do the work are “responsible” and the individual who is ultimately answerable is “accountable” as only one person can be accountable because accountability cannot be shared. I suppose this may work in non-team environments or co-acting groups but I struggle to see how it can really work in organizations that are committed to self-directed work teams.

For example, let’s take a a football (soccer) team, and apply the RACI matrix to it. Based on the RACI definitions, the players (workers) on the team are not accountable (answerable) for their play or the teams outcomes, only the coach or manager is.  Or how about a choir? Should the members of the choir not be accountable for their performance or is the choir director the only one accountable?  I wouldn’t want to be a part of a team where my teammates did not feel we were collectively accountable for our results.

George Santanya famously said:

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

It’s important that we don’t forget that matrices such as RACI are products of project management which is a by-product of scientific management. If you are a manager and/or leader in an organization, hopefully you are aware of scientific management and Taylorism. My experience (unfortunately) however, is that many managers and leaders are not familiar with management theories.  Read the label before use, please.

Self-directed teams are accountable for delivering a work product that pleases those who will use or benefit from their work product. Accountability for delivering the work product should be that of the team and not that of a single individual whether that individual is the lead developer, architect, product owner, project manager or simply the smartest guy or gal in the room. Team members are individually accountable for meaningfully contributing to the overall success of the team.  If you intend to make one individual accountable for the work product, then you must also give them full control and strip the rest of the team of their accountability.  As Stephen Covey said:

You can’t hold people accountable for results if you manage their methods.

Is this something your really want to do?

While we’re talking about accountability, I should point out team accountability is not an idea original to Agile. A review of the work and study done on team-based work structures make it very clear that one of the conditions needed for self-directed teams to be successful is team accountability.

Some of my colleagues in Agile-sphere have an aversion to the word accountability because it often translates to a “who do we blame when things go wrong” culture.  I happened to work in an organization with a business unit that had a strong culture of blame.  I can recall an experience where a VP wanted me to let him know who on my team would be working on a certain piece of functionality so that he would know who to go to when things went wrong. He wanted to know who was accountable.  Unfortunately for him, I wasn’t in the mood to provide that type of information so I ultimately became accountable.  I don’t believe that accountability needs to translate to a culture of blame if individuals and teams take both responsibility and accountability.  Unfortunately, many organizations are challenged in this area.

If you’re truly making the commitment to self-directed work teams, make the commitment to team accountability as well.  More to come on this….

PS: I started this post in October of last year (2014) but never really got to completing it.

1. Leading Self-Directed Work Teams by Kimball Fisher
2. Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances by J. Richard Hackman
3. https://hbr.org/2014/05/the-best-teams-hold-themselves-accountable

Who Are You?

It’s been a minute since I’ve blogged as a lot has happened in life recently, the biggest being the passing and laying to rest of the matriach of our family, my grandmother. Hannah Joji Ikonne.  She was the best grandmother ever and her passing away is one of the sources of inspiration for this post.

Who are you?  When I ask myself that question I realize that I am the sum total of the experiences and circumstances (and more) that have occurred during my lifetime.  Let me quickly share a few:

  • I grew up in a home of faith
  • I grew up in a third world country
  • I did farm work, cutting foliage with a cutlass, planting corn, cassava etc etc
  • I walked 3 miles to my high school and 3 miles back home every day for 4 years in the scorching sun
  • I lived on a university campus where academic rigor was the order of the day
  • Etc etc…

How have these factors impacted me as an individual?

  • I am person of faith
  • I have empathy for the less fortunate and I’m content with whatever I have as I realize there are people who have much less
  • I am not afraid of hard work and get irritated often when people complain about certain aspects of our white collar jobs
  • I appreciate having a car 🙂
  • I have little respect for those who haven’t done their research on a subject and yet have such a loud opinion on the subject

These are how the factors impacted me, not anyone else.  A lot of the folks I grew up with experienced similar conditions and were impacted in a different way. (You know who you are).

But the point of this post is not to make my life experiences material for the public domain but rather to remind us of something we already knew, we are complex creatures.  I feel that this is extremely important to remember as we interact with one another, especially in the workplace.

Don’t be quick to judge or jump to conclusions.  Remember that the individual on the other side of the table is also a product of their life experiences just like you are.  Have empathy.  Be tolerant. Be vulnerable.

Now I know for a fact that this is easier said than done (I personally struggle with being vulnerable for example) but we need to keep trying if we want to experience deep and meaningful relationships. Paraphrasing St. Francis:

Seek to understand then be understood

Rest in peace Mama Ukwu.