Friday, 10 June 2011

Bean sprouts and complexity

Some recent news stories (ranging from Haringey to Germany to Bristol..) and couple of tweets have got me thinking about accountability and responsibility: as in what do we really mean when we say a person should be 'held accountable' or that someone 'was responsible'...? The media like to talk about who was to blame and the courts seek to apportion responsibility. Compensation is demanded, heads must roll and politicians will be held to account.

It all seems very puzzling to me. Avoiding the debates around Sharon Shoesmith and Winterbourne View, I will stick with talking about E.Coli in Germany instead as it is a subject I know very little about and it is a somewhat less heated subject here in the UK (whilst not overlooking the fact that several people have died). It is useful to explore, a little, I think.

Firstly, when I began writing this article, the German authorities still did not know the source of the outbreak. I say 'still' because there is a bit of me that thinks they should have discovered some days ago. I mean, how hard can it be? Well evidently, very hard (I did say I do not know much about this subject). But this does not stop people (especially some journalists and politicians) from expressing the view that 'something must be done', and the guilty party should be held to account. But who is the 'guilty' party here? Not the Spanish cucumber farmers it would seem. It now (10/6/11) does seem to have been the North German bean sprout cultivator (alfalfa or moong bean - I need to know?) Or maybe not: the evidence so far is not completely cut and dried.

Maybe this just happened.

Whilst it will probably be definitively discovered eventually where this killer bug came from, my guessing is that it will be found to have been a complex interplay of a number of coincidental occurrences that combined to make it happen. No single person will be 'responsible'. But will this prevent the hunt for someone to be held to account and hung out to dry. Sadly, probably not. Whilst the German Government looks set to compensate the Spanish Farmers, they will in turn probably look for someone else to blame - to shift that lump of responsibility onwards (and, in all likelihood, downwards).

But isn't accountability and responsibility a bit like a handful of alafalfa sprouts: a convoluted mesh of interwoven strands. If you pull it apart to discover how it holds together, the strands will break and the pattern that you seek will disappear. Isn't accountability a bit like that - not clean, clinical and linear but irregular, fuzzy and connected in complex ways? 
  • As a manager, how do you 'performance manage' people when the reasons for their successes or failures are difficult to discern? 
  • As a citizen, how do you hold politicians to account for their decisions? 
  • As a politician, how do you distinguish between what you will claim success for and what you will say was nothing to do with you? 
  • In sum, how does complexity impact on your leadership?

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