The Responsibility Trap

The responsibility trap is a very easy one to fall into. The symptoms are easy to spot - it's 11pm, you are sitting in an empty office, buried in work up to your eyeballs. Everyone else went home hours ago. Weekends are a myth. You haven't seen your family for days. The agile principle of sustainable pace applies to everyone on the team... except you. How did it happen? The trap is a really easy one to stumble into because it's insidious. You can wander in without realising you are inside, you won't notice until you are deep inside and by then it's too late. Try to leave and the trap will snap shut around you. While anyone can fall into the trap, it's particularly easy for people in expert, leadership or coaching roles to get stuck in it.

The trap is really simple, it works like this - the team needs something done. You, as "the expert" in the area, take it on and do it. The next time it needs doing, you do it again. Now, everyone just expects you to do it. Then something else comes up and, as "the expert", you step up and do it. And so on, until you are buried in a pile of work. Your intentions were good - the team needed something done, they were busy, it was urgent, you did it. What's wrong with that?

The most obvious problem of course is personal workload. The more you take on to help the team, the more work you have to get through each day. Pretty soon it can build into an unmanageable pile. Someone in a leadership position or someone like a team coach, who is expected to be an expert in everything, can find this sort of thing cropping up every day and your workload can grow very quickly.

This is obviously bad for you. This is burnout territory if you let it go on too long. You suffer, your relationships suffer, your family suffers. Importantly, even though it's not as obvious, the team suffers as well.

The team suffers in two ways. First, there is only one of you. You have taken on a bunch of work that the team now expects you to get done. Even working late there are only so many hours in the day. You are a bottleneck. In your desire to help the team, you will be slowing them down. The team depends on you to do something. If you aren't there for some reason (sick, because you are working too hard for example), no one else knows how to do it so it won't get done. You have made the team dependent on you. The more you take on, the more the team depends on you. You become what the project managers refer to as a "key person risk".

The second way the team suffers is less obvious, but more serious. What you are doing, by taking things on for the team, is destroying their ability to learn. If every time they have a problem, you step in and add it to your workload, they will not learn to solve problems for themselves. They will just expect you to solve things for them while they cruise along. Worse, if you leave for any reason, the team has lost all knowledge of whatever it was that you did. If you are their automated testing expert, say, when you leave, all their automated testing will come to a crashing halt. If you are their agile coach, when you leave, what are the chances of their agile practices surviving? The more you take on, the more fragile the team becomes.

Once you are in the trap, it's really hard to get out of it. You can't just dump all your work back on the team because they are busy (though not as busy as you) doing their jobs and everything is always urgent, so there is no time to train anyone to do it, so you are generally stuck with it. Once in, the trap is almost impossible to escape.

The key to avoiding the trap is to recognise it early and avoid it. Keep an eye on your personal workload. Set a WIP limit for yourself. If you start to exceed it, ask yourself why. Constantly working back late is a sure sign that something is wrong. More importantly, when it comes to doing these things, don't do them yourself. Mentor the team in how to do them for themselves. OK... if it's fantastically specialised and technical, that's hard. That's why we have technical specialists but that stuff is relatively rare, the other 99% of the stuff that drags people into the responsibility trap are tings that the team could, and should, be able to do.

Your job as a leader/coach/expert should not be to solve everything yourself. It should be to make everyone else on the team as good at solving problems as you are. If you are a tech lead, your job is not to write all the hardest code, it is to make everyone on the team write code as good as yours. If you are an agile coach, your job is not to own everything agile for the team, it is to make everyone on the team as good at agile as you.

The more you can mentor the team on how to solve its own problems, the stronger the team becomes. Let them solve their own problems (with guidance). That way, when you leave, you leave behind a strong, capable team instead of a disaster.

And you get to see your family more often. Everyone wins.