Delegation, responsibility and accountability – Lessons from parenting

Last week we had our parent-teacher conference at our seven year old daughter’s school.  It was the usual interesting review of her current outputs and testing results and there are certainly no concerns from either side.  There was however, one comment that has stuck with me over the past week, and that was a compliment about our attitude towards personal responsibility.  I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but it essentially amounted to the fact that we don’t do everything for her.  Even when it’s not the easiest route, we let her take age appropriate responsibility and accountability for herself and her choices and that is resulting in a little girl who is independent, confident and makes good choices.

Prompted by this observation, I’ve reflected on the struggle that I see often, both in business and life, to delegate effectively.  I’m going to illustrate my point with a parenting based example, however the thinking is just as applicable to any business situation.

Little Miss arrives home from school daily with a reader and other simple activities that should take no more than 20 minutes.  The ideal outcome is that the homework gets completed before bedtime without fuss, whining, nagging or conflict.  The reality however, is that there are a number of things that she would much rather be doing with her afternoon than homework, and as a working mother I am not actually there to exert authority.  In this situation, the likelihood of the ideal outcome is directly related to the level of responsibility that she feels and her ownership of the outcome.

Note that accountability is the ability to be able to account for the situation.  The accountable party is the one person that accepts that they have the obligation to report, explain or justify what happened.  Responsibility is the ability to be able to respond to the situation.  One or more people who have the power to control or manage what happens.

In many households, the way homework plays out is the imposition of a set of consequences.  You must do your homework before X; you will not be allowed Y unless it’s done, etc. etc.  The parent or caregiver assumes full responsibility for getting the homework done, and more than that they also take on the accountability (as evidenced by the number of notes and explanations that I used to receive as a teacher from parents accounting for why the homework was not complete.)

Now this is great way to create action if you have the authority to enforce consequences that have the power to facilitate the desired behaviour, but in the business world (as in our household), this is not necessarily the case.  The problem in our house, is that off-the-charts level of stubbornness (yes it’s genetic) means that our children would rather accept whatever consequences we as caregivers can dish out retaining their power to choose their behaviour, than to give in and avoid the consequence.  What inevitably happens is a good old Mexican standoff with neither party willing to back down, resulting in no one winning and everyone losing.

When we first encountered the homework phenomenon, I sat back and thought about how we could set Little Miss up for success, avoiding the conflict and nagging that was likely to ensue.  Although I didn’t consider it at the time, these questions directly relate to the delegation of responsibility and accountability for an outcome, in this case, the completed homework.

  1. Who has the power to control and manage what happens?
    The answer is, to some extent both of us.  Only she can physically complete the task and thus owns the majority of the responsibility, however, I can set clear expectations and manage the conditions under which the homework can occur.  This places some of the responsibility on me and the other caregivers.
  2. Where does the buck stop? Who will report or explain the outcome?
    The answer here, although it may not seem natural to say so, is actually her.  She is the only one that has to front up to her teacher and explain the outcome.  She is the one who will deal with the consequence imposed at that point.

So with clarity there, the next question is what conditions I can set to facilitate the ideal outcome?

It always start with communicating clear expectations across a number of contributing factors…

  • The outcome – Homework is important and should be completed.
  • The boundaries – The only element that is able to be completed after dinner is reading, and your light will be switched off at the usual time, there is no staying up late.
  • The support available – We are here to help if you need it, but you will need to ask.
  • The management system – We will not nag you to get it done, but we will give you one reminder (and only one) if we have not seen it before we start preparing dinner.
  • The responsibility – It is your responsibility to plan your time and get it completed.
  • The accountability – If for whatever reason, it doesn’t get done, you will need to explain yourself to your teacher. There will be no notes from us.
  • The measure of success – We would like to see the completed work if you would like to share it. If homework completion becomes a problem, then we will have to reassess your afternoon activities.

Having set the conditions to enable the desired outcome and delegated the responsibility and accountability, we then follow through.  We don’t interfere in ‘how’ it gets done, we don’t pass judgement or circumvent the process.  We don’t undermine the set expectations.  She asks for help when she needs it and feels empowered to manage her own time and methodology.  She then shares her outputs.

The result…  There is no fuss, nagging, whining, or conflict about homework in our house.  The majority of the time, it gets done, and if it doesn’t she explains herself to her teacher and deals with the consequence.  In summary, we have achieved our desired outcome.

I believe that there is a real lesson here for life or business.  When you are considering delegating either responsibility or accountability for an activity (or being delegated to), there are three quick actions that will set you (and your team) up for success.

  1. Ask, who has the power to control and manage what happens?
    Who is responsible and what actions do they need to take?
  2. Ask, where does the buck stop?
    Who will report or explain the outcome?  Who will be held accountable to what authority?
  3. Then, when you’re ready, set and communicate clear expectations:
  • The expected outcome.
  • The boundaries and limitations under which the activity must occur.
  • The availability of support.
  • The management system / feedback loops that are in place.
  • The responsible party.
  • The accountable party.
  • The measure of success.

Of course, the true test will be when our younger child Mr Rule Breaker, starts school!  Will the same method of delegation work with him?  Fingers crossed!

Quick read of the week: BCG Global Challengers

BCG’s 2016 Global Challengers report is out and the short excerpt in the link below identifies the ‘five under-the-hood success factors’ that were common to previous Challengers that have graduated to become Global Leaders.

Some of the key pull out quotes…

  • “Many former global challengers [that are no longer on the list] also articulated a compelling vision. But they failed to create a culture that unified the company and amplified individual effort and achievement.”
  • “The operating models of global leaders are built to go global and to be adaptive. They are not modified versions of the model designed for the company’s home market.”
  • “They make smart local acquisitions and develop local partnerships to fill in the gaps in their coverage, product portfolio, or distribution networks.”
  • “One invested heavily in innovation, especially localized R&D. … The other company remained true to its command-and-control bureaucratic structure, which led to sluggish decision making and a lack of local adaptation. Its innovation strategy was reactive, responding to requests from customers, rather than forward looking. [Two similar companies, one that has become a leader, one with falling revenues.]”

Interesting how important the intersection of vision and culture is to success.  Further reinforces for me how important it is to have a winning view of the future backed up by an adaptable plan that creates clarity for multi-level decision making.

Winning – a source of strength

What motivates you?  What makes you stick with something through the tough times?  What keeps you in the game?  Is knowing that you’re participating enough?  Would you celebrate fourth place in the same way you would celebrate first?  Do you pat yourself on the back and say, I came, I saw, I had a go?  Probably not.

Chances are, if you are in something, you are in it to win it and there is a biological reason for this.  When we win, our brains release a burst of testosterone and dopamine, chemicals that makes us feel stronger, smarter, more confident and just generally really good.  We feel a ‘high’ and we crave more.  At the most basic biological level, winning allows you to leverage your strengths for continued success.

So what is winning?

Winning is the achievement of a predefined goal.  To win is to succeed, and to succeed is to win.

This is a powerful concept, because it means that if you have the power to define the goal and the success criteria, you can increase your odds of winning, enabling that strength and confidence that in turn drive further success.

In business, this means defining not just the competitive landscape or the playing field, but also the game you will be playing.  Winning is about creating an advantage that is valued by a defined group of customers against a certain group of competitors.

Businesses that are able identify and satisfy unmet customer needs in a way that has never been done before are creating a new playing field.  Businesses that are able to differentiate their product or service by delivering customer value over and above their competitors are changing the rules of the game.  Businesses that protect their advantage are tying their competitors’ hands behind their back, and businesses that create and leverage barriers to entry are preventing new game players.

Winning makes you stronger, but to fight your way through someone else’s game to get to that winning position is hard.  So in a business sense, why wouldn’t you change the game or the playing field as much as possible to tip it in your favour?  As Roger Martin encourages, to increase your chances of success you must make a unique set of choices about where you are going to play – in what customer segments, geographies, channels, products or services; but also how you are going to win – what end user needs are you satisfying and what value are you delivering to the customer.

By defining a unique playing field and creating unique set of rules, you are able to differentiate from your competition and set a winning aspiration with a higher likelihood of success.  When you succeed you win, and when you win, you succeed.

So be it business or life, don’t just play to play; take control of your game and play to win.

Book Review: Playing to Win, How Strategy Really Works

Book review
Playing to Win, How Strategy Really Works
by A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin (2013)


Roger Martin is a world leading global business thinker whose name keeps company with the likes of Clay Christensen and Michael Porter in the world of business and innovation strategy.  He is an advisor to CEOs globally, a strategist, design thinker, innovator, author and Dean of Rotman School of Management.  Martin is best known for the Playing to Win framework described in the book Playing to Win:  How Strategy Really Works, which he co-authored with A.G. Lafley.

Alan George (A.G.) Lafley was the CEO of mega giant consumer goods company Procter & Gamble from 2000-2009.  He is credited, along with Martin acting as his advisor, with revitalising P&G growing earnings per share by 12% and more than doubling the market capitalization to become one of the five most valuable companies in the US.  Along with these outstanding financial results, he is credited with bringing the consumer to the centre of the organisation and embedding strategic thinking to significantly lift collaboration and connectivity across the organisation for a more innovative culture.

Playing to Win, How Strategy Really Works is essentially a full length case study of P&G’s decision making process across both the corporate organisation and a variety of their major brands / business units.  It explains in detail, the Playing to Win framework for strategy, and is therefore not only interesting, but makes the leap that many business books fail to perform adequately, to being a practical guide on the subject matter.

Having been lucky enough to have attended a one-day conference where half the day was devoted to Martin describing his approach to strategy, I had high expectations for what the book could deliver over and above hearing it from the horse’s mouth.  I wasn’t disappointed.

Playing to Win, How Strategy Really Works, explains the concept of strategy simply and succinctly.  Rather than getting caught up in the wide variety of uses of the term (see Mintzberg’s ‘5 Ps for Strategy’, a topic for another day), or complicated, boring and ineffective processes (see anyone who has ever been part of traditional ‘strategic planning’ exercises,) Martin & Lafley define strategy simply, it is a choice.  More specifically, “a set of interrelated and powerful choices that positions the organisation to win.”  In Martin’s view the Playing to Win book is supposed to clarify and simplify strategy to be a powerful tool for managers.  Done and done.

Beginning with a discussion of what strategy is and a summary of the five interrelated choices, the book then devotes a chapter to each of these choices with examples from P&G that don’t just illustrate the points, but create a narrative around brands and businesses that are household names.  You can picture the packaging, the placement, the price and the promotion.  They are stories you can relate to and they are brands that you may not love, but definitely know.  This ensures that Playing to Win is not just another dry business book.

In addition to being academically interesting, the scenarios and content presented are practical.  There is enough detail that you will feel confident in applying the thinking yourself, but not so detailed as to create a snooze fest.  The final two chapters take things one step further to provide methodologies for making sense of the strategic options with a clear framework and process, a ‘how to’ for implementing the five choices.

Rather than repeat the specific content of Playing to Win, which should be top of your reading list if you have any interest in making choices for yourself, your role, your function or your business, I have instead summarised below the five key messages from all of the various materials that I have collected from Martin, including the Playing to Win book, but also his toolkit, detailed case studies, various articles and his key note speech from the event I attended last year.  These are some of the key elements of strategic thinking.

1. Strategy is simply about making choices.  Choosing to do some things and not others.

Strategy is a set of choices that “positions an organisation to win with customers and against competitors”.  The critical message here, is that strategies need to be about winning, and winning needs a playing field.  Without a clear understanding of who the judges are (the customer / consumer) or who you’re playing against (the competition), you are likely to be making choices that are a long way from best serving the consumer base to create maximum shareholder value.

2. Strategy is about increasing the odds of success.  There is no such thing as the perfect strategy.

Many companies, and indeed strategists, believe that the more analysis they put into planning, the greater the chance of success.  Instead Martin proposes that by first understanding the various strategic possibilities available, and only then adding thoughtful analysis, we can increase the odds of success with targeted analysis rather than casting a wide net and hoping that something relevant becomes apparent.

3. Successful strategy making combines analysis and creativity.

Martin proposes that taking a purely analytical approach limits decisions based on a past that is unlikely to be repeated.  This is particularly true in these times of rapid disruption and innovation.  Rather he posits, strategy should be the intersection of the creative and scientific.  It is about generating new hypotheses, potential futures, just as much as it is about testing and critically analysing them.  This is the root of the design thinking movement.

4. Strategy should always start with a problem and a choice.

As strategy is about making winning choices, you cannot have a strategy if there is no choice to be made, and that choice will relate to a problem.  “Framing the problem is as important as, and often more difficult than, solving the problem.”  Attempting to ‘do strategy’ is a waste of time if it doesn’t exploit an opportunity to create value.

5. Strategy is the answer to five interconnected questions – the strategic cascade.

The answers to these five choices should create a unique position “so as to create sustainable advantage and superior value relative to the competition.”  In other words, your choices should be purposefully different to your competitors’ choices.

The five choices are:

  • What is our winning aspiration?
    What is the guiding purpose of this entity.
  • Where will we play?
    The geographies, customer segments, channels, products, and stages of production in which we choose to compete.
  • How will we win?
    The competitive advantage we need to win in our chosen market.
  • What capabilities must we have?
    What we will need to do at the highest level, in order to win in that way.
  • What management systems do we need?
    How we will build, support, and measure those capabilities.

Furthermore, these choices do not just happen at the top of an organisation, they should cascade down through all levels in an inter-connected way.

“At P&G, for instance, there is a brand strategy that articulates the five choices for a brand such as Olay or Pampers. There is a category strategy that covers multiple related brands, like skin care or diapers. There is a sector strategy that covers multiple categories, for example, beauty or baby care. And finally, there is a strategy at the company level, too. Each strategy influences and is influenced by the choices above and below it.  The result is a set of nested cascades that cover the full organization.”

Strategic Cascade

In summary, strategy is not complex wizardry held close by the upper echelon, and it is definitely not separate from execution.  It is merely the art and science of making choices that increase the odds of success to create value, and it should be present at every level of an organisation.

The link to purchase the book:

A summary article with a great example of why a winning aspiration is important:

Purposeful Choices – The value of a clear vision in a personal context.

Strategy 101 tells you that choices must be made in the context of a strategic intent.  A knowledge of the desired future state as expressed by some combination of vision, mission, values, goals (order and importance vary based on whatever source / author you’re referring to at the time).  As a strategy professional, my musing for today was reflecting upon the strategic intent behind the career choices that I’ve made to date.

As a five year old I would have expressed my future goals as “being a ‘boss’ and going to the Olympics.”  As a ten year old I wanted to “be the head coach of the All Blacks”.  By 11 I’d realised that the chance of that happening for a non-rugby playing female was relatively slim and so it became a desire to be “the All Blacks’ head doctor.”  15-year-old-me would have said I was going to be a leading Orthopaedic Surgeon and a few years later I’d completely pivoted to wanting to be a School Principal at a prominent school.

Now it’s completely normal for your ideas about your future to change as you age, but what I’ve realised is that there is very strong thread of commonality running through my intentions and dreams.  Although the specific goals have changed and flexed to suit the circumstances and context of the time, my vision has been pretty consistent.  In every field I chose to fixate on for that moment, I wanted to be the leader, to perform in the highest arena, to have influence and power so as to effect change, to use that change to enable success and to feel personal success through high performance.

Fast forward a good decade or so and here I am sitting in my car on the way home with hubby and he’s describing my career trajectory in terms that would be closer to luck than planning.  I was immediately uncomfortable with this suggestion.  Yes, from the outside it appears as if I’ve randomly hopped around through roles across multiple industries moving diagonally as well us vertically, and yes some of the opportunities I’ve been exposed to have come without me seeking them, but every choice I’ve made has been in keeping with the original vision.  For the record, these days I would express that vision as “leading and enabling shared success through high performance”, and yes, there is a current version of a specific and measurable goal that sits alongside that.

I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I don’t believe in luck, but luck is definitely influenced by considered planning led by good decision making and then proving your capability at every step of the way.  Confidence speaks volumes, but confidence backed by capability and good decisions wins.

Having worked in a variety of strategic roles and being immersed in strategic business conversations at the dinner table since childhood, I’ve been constantly exposed to the principles of good decision making.  Strategy is at its core, the art of making winning decisions.  The principles of good decision making apply not only to business, but to life, and upon reflection, it’s these that have guided my career thus far.

  1. Know what it is that you want to achieve but be open to alternate interpretations along the way.
  2. Share the vision widely, especially with trusted people who have power or influence, but most importantly share it with your support network and your team.
  3. Fully commit to the current course and know what defines success within the current interpretation. Know the goal and then systematically work towards those success metrics (yes numbers) until something indicates the need for change.
  4. Stay alert and open to opportunities and information that may change the status quo.
  5. Consider opportunities in the context of the overall vision and gather information to inform that view. Don’t make decisions in a vacuum.
  6. Share the thinking, create buy in and take people with you on the journey, especially when making significant changes.
  7. Fully commit to any new course of action ensuring you’ve got the capability required and execute with confidence.
  8. Celebrate milestones and success along the way. Look back to see how far you’ve come, and look forward to remind yourself of the end game, the vision and the current goal.

So back to the conversation of last night and I can’t help but wonder what my husband’s career vision is.  I don’t even know his longer term goal.  My clarity of vision (and personality) are such that I shout my opinions from the rooftops.  He is a more conservative soul motivated primarily by a thirst for knowledge and a feeling of making a difference for the local community rather than corporate ladder climbing.  There is however, no reason why he can’t gain clarity on his own vision and goals and pursue them in the same manner of purposeful choice that I have always instinctively followed.  A conversation for tonight perhaps!