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Authority, Responsibility, Capability

Page history last edited by rsb 3 months, 1 week ago




This is super raw and might need a hundred or so edits over another 20 years of experience before it really crystallizes.  But, notes.




Authority, responsibility, and capability must be in a specific balance for an organization to function smoothly.  Mismatches in authority, responsibility, and capability normally require communicative solutions.


There are whole professions to which this problem is endemic (entrepreneurs, project and product managers, etc.) and ba-zillions of pages written on this topic. 


I have attempted to address this topic based on my experience:



Similar articles that I have read consider authority, responsibility, and accountability, separately - but I find those types of articles less clear and useful than I would like.  Accountability is such a fundamental soft skill that I consider it part of responsibility protocol, and feel safe handling it as such.  Capability, on the other hand, is so often misunderstood and misjudged as that it cannot be ignored as a common problem in the conduct of responsibility protocol.


Further scope limit - communication over process: The negative side-effects of mismatches in authority, responsibility, and capability can often be handled by adding process to an organization.  Process is often blunt, degenerate communication - but it can help - focusing on process vs. outcomes can be important when speed, creativity, and flexibility are not required.   However, my goal here is to identify how communications correlates with understanding of authority, responsibility and capability, not to identify and recommend process or policy fixes.  




Assuming everyone has full awareness of everyones own capabilities, responsibilities, and authority in advance of work, we see the following imbalances:


Least common:


Authority > Responsibility = Can complete work (Known Unpredictable)

Capability > Responsibility = Can complete work (Known Underutilized)


Most common:


Capability < Responsibility = Cannot complete work (Known Death March with potential learning outcome)

Responsibility > Authority = Cannot complete work (Known Death March)




The degree to which one does not know the level of responsibility, capability, or authority that they have, is the degree to which their work product is in doubt. 


Particularly in the context of someone in a leadership position - If someone takes full responsibility for something, then they must take full authority to complete it.  Without very specific communication, this situation (de-facto) leaves zero responsibility or authority to do that thing by others, unless that responsibility is appropriated by another. 


Examples of appropriate behavior:


Just a first take at a smattering of potential situations in which those axioms apply (NOTE: I have been the bad guy in several of these):


1) You have taken full responsibility for all aspects of an organization, and you dole out tasks to others.  You have granted no exclusive authority - unless you are a perfectly coordinated team of entrepreneurs, pick a lane, create a minimal structure, and take on areas responsibility.  Without explicitly granting authority, choices are limited - employees can assume they are in either a laissez-faire "lord of the flies" culture (ala Valve), or an authoritarian structure, or something else, but they can't feel they have an area of responsibility (might work, but usually doesn't).  An area of responsibility creates purpose, which is critical to longevity in an organization (and in life, for that matter).  See also: Founders Syndrome.


2) You are given responsibility and authority to do something that you are physically and mentally capable of, but may not have the time to complete:  You are not capable of this task - enable appropriation of that task by communicating to others, and update them as to your progress, if any or none, as is useful.  OR - delay the task until you have time to complete it and communicate that delay.  OR - delegate the entire area of responsibility if practical - this is organization-building.


3) Someone appropriates a task that you have completed 50% of, duplicating work and wasting your time.  You have a non-communicative co-worker - Their behavior is only appropriate if they had communicated to you, in advance of your work, that they will take on the task if progress is not communicated by you, and you did not communicate progress.  OR - they did not know that you had that task.  There may be a few other appropriate corner cases.  If their action was not appropriate, then communicate that or it will happen again.


4) You are given responsibility and authority to do something that you have authority for, but that no one cares is ever done.  You have higher priority tasks that lots of people care are done.  You are wasting your time - Communicate that this is not something that anyone considers a priority, and that you will be working on higher priority tasks.


5) You were given responsibility and authority to complete all work in an area of responsibility as you see fit, and a budget to spend at will to get it done, as long as you track expenditures.  You are 50% complete with a few things, have a contractor working, and are energized by the agency you have been given.  A manager who ALSO has authority over those things tells you and the contractor that no work in the area of responsibility is needed.  You never had authority to get the job done - This was either a discouraging mis-communication or a breach of trust on the part of the manager - take a few deep breaths - it could be a mistake - don't reply on chat (which is probably where this happened) or email - personally get the manager on video chat or phone ASAP and clarify the meaning, and reasons for, their communication - then clarify the authority situation.


Somewhat interesting to think about: to the extent you understand someone‚Äôs intention and capability you know their suitability for a job - far harder to do for a group than an individual.  This suggests to me that funding people is more likely to achieve many results better than funding projects would.


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