Boy Scouts and Coffee Kitchen Officers

Personalized responsibility in the form of a “single wringable neck” is the means of choice when it comes to reliably shaping cooperation in organizations. With each such role, however, the level of organized irresponsibility increases.

In every community there are tasks that need to be done. It is in the nature of things that there are also tasks that nobody wants to do. The deplorable state of shared coffee kitchens in the office is just one example of many in daily life. The principle of the Boy Scouts, namely to leave the world always better than you found it, is unfortunately mostly neglected in everyday life.

Try and leave this world a little better than you found it.

Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell

What is obvious in the coffee kitchen is not always so easy to see in the work of teams. Nevertheless, it is usually the case that the team bears joint responsibility for the results and that there are always some activities that are less willing to be taken on. Until their neglect becomes a problem, e.g., because nobody in the DevOps team took care of the security and now everything is full of holes like Swiss cheese. Or because the aspects of stable operation have been neglected and the IT system now runs correspondingly unstable.

So far, so familiar. And the classical reaction is also sufficiently familiar: Clear and above all personalized responsibility is needed. This is the birth of the coffee kitchen officer, who will henceforth be held accountable for the condition of the dishwashers in his area of responsibility. The same applies to the IT security officer in the team and, of course, to the operations manager and many others who follow this path to organized irresponsibility.

Because no one cares, a person in charge is appointed, a “single wringable neck”, who has to take care of the matter under threat of consequences. So once again, it seems, the negative conception of man known as Theory X has been confirmed: people are lazy, selfish and irresponsible.

We were not lectured about the responsibility to bear, that simply emerged in the community.

Marion Gräfin Dönhoff

Of course, transparency regarding who takes on which tasks is a good thing. But effective teams manage this allocation in a self-organized way and adapt it on the fly according to needs and competencies. However, this requires a great deal of maturity on the part of the team and the people. And it requires a feeling of belonging together, responsibility for the common mission and, in particular, psychological safety. As a member of the community, I must be able to rely on that everyone cares for the whole and for the other members as deeply as I do. Only with the certainty that all others would do the same for me or for the common cause, I am ready to engage myself for the “we” over and above my selfish concerns.

With theory X and its negative conception of man as a basis, however, one moves one step further away from this ideal with every personalized responsibility. The coffee kitchen officer will never become a scout. On the contrary. He will selfishly take care of exactly what he is held responsible for. And if there is paper on the floor in the toilet next to the kitchen, he will not care. And then, of course, the toilet manager is needed, and so fate takes its course.

As long as you need heroes or culprits to explain a situation convincingly, you haven’t understood it yet.

Gerhard Wohland

So instead of pushing this organized irresponsibility to its extreme with ever more refined, clearly defined roles with personalized responsibility, it is necessary to go to the root of the problem: the increasing individualization, the resulting lack of a sense of belonging, the absence of a jointly supported mission and, last but not least, the lack of psychological safety, without which lone fighters will not become a team.

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