Roger Martin has lain down business organizations in the therapist chair, but you won't notice it because the author avoids skillfully the psychological labels currently in vogue.
If you often wonder about why you end up working more than others, why some people don't understand what you clearly state or why everybody sees what is wrong in the company and they don't do anything to fix it, this book is for you. It goes to the root of the problem, explains it plainly and offers a step by step program to solve it. The book also provides a better understanding of what's behind the Enron debacle and the government agencies mishandling of security issues before, during and after September 11.
It doesn't matter if the reader is a CEO, a manager, a professional or a secretary, he or she will find familiar faces and situations; people that could be your boss, your vice-president of sales or your managing editor. Why do we have the chance to see ourselves and others in these pages? The book is simply about human nature. It deals with the underlying emotions, culture and language that make many bureaucracies what they are: an incompetent and unfulfilled mass of otherwise intelligent, good and hard working people.
Martin explains that lack of collaboration between leadership and other parties in the organization brings an unbalanced approach to responsibility. The author describes what he calls the "heroic leader", which takes more responsibility that he or she should. Conversely, the other parties react giving up responsibility. Once the leader is unable to meet the goals, he or she sits back and takes the position of the followers. Meanwhile the frustrated followers take responsibility for their part, but because they can not attain the needed broad or bold solutions, parties induce the leader to take again more responsibilities that he or she can handle, and the infectious cycle of dependency starts again.
The mysterious Responsibility Virus is nothing more than the very human fear of failure. According to Chris Argyris, cited in the book, there are "governing values" that guide the way we interpret and deal with the world. They reside so ingrained in human nature that they apply to people across ages, cultures, economic status, and educational levels. Humans-Agyris claim--will always try to win, maintain control, avoid embarrassment and stay rational in any situation. Fear of failure triggers the governing values and they make us either take more responsibility (fight) or abdicate responsibility (flight).
Martin proposes the use of some "tools" to improve collaboration (choice structuring process), eliminate the mistrust and misunderstanding (frame experiment) and to balance capability and responsibility (responsibility ladder) among the parties in the organization. All these tools have the general objective of untying the person from the situation that requires attention and put aside the biased frame of mind from which we see the problem. Once all the parties involved in decision-making have a better perspective of the issue, they are in a position to find a middle ground between capabilities and responsibility.
It is at the end of the book, redefining leadership, when Martin describes the leader as what sociologists or psychologists would call a mature personality. According to the author, a leader should be capable of splitting responsibility through dialogue, apportioning responsibilities in keeping with capabilities, but more importantly, making apportionment discussable and subject performance to public testing. Although he doesn't mention it, you have the sense that it is the leader a significant carrier of the responsibility virus and also accountable for spreading his or her fear of failure throughout the organization.
In these times of leaders finger-pointing at each other and frustrated managers turned into audacious whistle-blowers this book is a timely required reading to understand not only organizations but the world around us.