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The Longest Now

Responsibility, Authority, and Delegation
Wednesday November 19th 2003, 11:16 pm
Filed under: metrics

All important to the conservation of energy and enthusiasm. I’m sure they are no cleverly-matched triad, but only three siblings which sprang to mind as I began to write. Feel free to suggest other siblings you would add to this small list to make it more complete.

It’s funny how easy it is for a bundle of directed, productive energy to dissipate. Three different groups I am involved with, and two whose progress I have been following quite avidly, have dissipated dramatically from a nervous “we must do something this very month. what should it be?” to a confident “yes, let’s make sure everyone is on the same page, meet a few more times, and figure out what we can accomplish by the end of winter”. I am particularly intrigued by the uniform way the “this month” deadline decayed, in every case, into no deadline at all.

A key part of these dissipations was the process of meeting in the first place; in many cases, exchanges of written ideas and communication seemed to move things forward, whereas meetings brought everything to a standstill in their aftermath (“whew! we made it through that. now we can get back to all those other things we have to worry about…?”). In at least two instances, people who had cared greatly about certain points and brought them up before, felt that anything mentioned before the meeting (including their own points) had now been discussed, dealt with, and boiled down into the handful of ‘action items’ each of which it was now vaguely someone’s responsibility to act upon… even when their pet peeves/ideas had been quietly elided in the heat of the moment. So how is it that, in the coming days, they didn’t realize this and mention these points again?

Another key part of these dissipations is ambient noise. One must hypothesize a world in which there are constant random drains on energy, distractions from focus, time pressures, imagined deadlines, overlapping priorities, and no clear method for coping with all of these simultaneously. I hope you will suspend disbelief and assume, with me, that this is not an unfair approximation.

Now, if you will forgive me, I feel a quantum analogy coming on. If you’re not a fan of quantum physics, much less analogies, it’s best if you skip this part in its entirety.

This dissipation reminds me of simplistic decoherence; only the strictest avoidance of tangential measurements, or measurement of well-defined metrics along carefully planned axes, preserves this energy.

And yet it’s not quite like this, since one always acts, not in a vacuum, but in a world full of energetic standing waves, almost-standing waves, and other sources of energy; and certain kinds of impromptu interactions magnify bundles of energy, sometimes synergistically (perhaps hitting some unseen underlying resonance).

Oh, wait. The rest of the universe is probably like that too. Hmmm. Hello, 22nd-century physics.

Getting back to our subject: energy and ideas dissipate, change, incorporate and are incorporated by others; usually with a remarkable loss of their original spark and incisiveness. Most groups, ideas, projects are fairly amorphous, persisting through inertia and size as much as anything else [there is in much of life a conservation of momentum, even when momentum is something amorphous and social].

It is my current hallucination that certain modern social concepts are useful for identifying ways to avoid this broadening of purpose and utility, dissipation of vibrancy and energy.

Responsibility : When responsibility is clear and clearly broadcast, so that people responsible and those observing them all understand wherein it lies, it does a great deal for maintaining the focus and energy of those who bear its burden.

Authority : Authority directs the focus given by responsibility, and allows it to find productive and not merely bureaucratic outlets. Responsibility without authority lends itself to joyless days spent passing the buck, documenting that one has done so, and reporting on how it was passed. Similarly, authority without responsibility lends itself to abuse of power, and the direction of personal creative energies in directions quite orthogonal to a group’s stated goals.

Delegation : Organizations of more than one or two people develop formal and informal heirarchies and spheres of influence. Without explicit delegation of authority and responsibility for individual projects, even the smallest project can be held up indefinitely in the backwash of conflicting priorities. Nevertheless, it is a natural impulse for those with influence to be wary of delegating it, particularly when they have only part of their attention to devote to exercising said influence and are more concerned with usurpation than with organizational success. Those who make influence their life often discover how delegation can be used to increase influence, rather than diminishing it.

As to my point… if any relevant changes are made to some of the five groups I mentioned, perhaps I will have positive results to report in a few months’ time. Until then, this is just more food for thought.

Yes! I can so relate to what you’ve typed. You’ve hit on some of the reasons why I’m burning out and trying to shed some committee work.

And your use of the word “orthogonal” is so terrific. One of our blogging friends is always talking about how a friend of his uses it. I’m going to pass it on to him to appreciate.

Comment by j 11.20.03 @ 6:54 pm

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