Cognitive Easement

Cognitive Easement

It was #Gilbfest in London last week, and amongst other things the week provided a rich lode to mine for blog posts, including this one. The proximate trigger for this post was a discussion during a short presentation by Rolf Goetz (@rolfgoetz) concerning a better way to describe roles and responsibilities in a development organisation. The discussion touched on the RACI matrix, with most folks debating the relative merits of RACI vs Rolf’s suggested improvements, along with some number of other alternatives for clarifying roles and responsibilities seen “in the wild”.

Despite a few dissenting murmurs from the Agile end of the room, what was NOT discussed was the whole issue of whether making folks “responsible” for certain kinds of decision was in fact a good idea at all.

It’s one of the many hallmarks of the Analytic mindset – more specifically, of the Theory X worldview – that someone should “be responsible” for things. In this worldview, ideally, every possible decision should have a “responsible person”. Implicit in this worldview is the assumption that without such “responsible parties”, decisions will be overlooked, and important issues might “fall through the gaps”, disrupting the operation of the organisation and the quality of service to customers. Never mind that in most organisations having this worldview – and with e.g. their corresponding RACI matrices well-defined – operations of the organisation ARE regularly disrupted and the quality of service to customers is typically poor.

“If everyone is responsible then no one is.”

Most of these Analytic organisations unconsciously attempt to substitute “accountability” – aka responsibility – for the commitment they regard as both unreliable and unlikely to be forthcoming from their staff.

Instead of working on the root cause, – the lack of engagement and commitment in their staff – such organisations rely on the idea of the “Single Wringable Neck” or “One Throat to Choke”, expecting (with little supporting and much contrary evidence) that “accountability” – aka the blame game – will bring about the desired effect (a smooth-running, well-oiled machine of an organisation).

Roger Martin describes all this, and more, in his great book “The Responsibility Virus”. He also describes how the Single Wringable Neck idea drives alienation, siloism and other organisational dysfunctions.

Commitment Trumps Responsibility

Actually what we should be looking for most often is not responsibility, but commitment. Commitment to keeping things running smoothly. Commitment to giving the customer a great experience. Commitment to excellence.

Deming’s 14 Points have some advice here too:

  1. Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.
  2. Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales, and production must work as a team, to foresee problems of production and in use that may be encountered with the product or service.
  3. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the workforce asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.
  4. a) Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute leadership
    b) Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.
Note the key elements:
  • working as a team
  • leadership instead of management (by numbers) – and see also “Fellowship
  • elimination of fear
All these elements suggest individual accountability has little to zero part to play in the “transformation of organisations” (Deming’s intent).

An Alternative

So, what to do instead of assigning roles and responsibilities to specific individuals? How to avoid the disruptions and wide variations in service quality that characterises the Ad-hoc mindset, the disruptions and variations that the Analytic mindset so eagerly wishes to extirpate? Let’s look at this as two separate issues:


Instead of well-defined roles, have ‘T’, ‘π’ or even “\(;,,,;)/” (Cthulhu) -shaped people (aka generalising specialists). Have people who can step into whichever roles needs filling at the time. Have well-understood means to recognise when a role needs specialist skills, as well as the means to “pull” someone with those skills when necessary.


Instead of tightly-defined – and often, imposed – responsibilities assigned to specific individuals,
  1. work to raise the level of commitment and engagement of staff to the point where they can both recognise when some action or decision is required, and are willing to step in and take that action or decision – or at least, act on the recognition and get other involved in taking the necessary action or decision jointly.
  2. Improve the way the work works (“the system”) to the point where the system takes care of the common, routine decisions more or less automatically, leaving humans the space and time to focus their time, attention and special skills on dealing with the wide variety of uncommon, one-off and unusual actions and decisions that inevitably arise every day in the course of running an organisation.

Cognitive Easement

This term refers to the second point in the above list – improving the way the work works.
In situations of potentially high cognitive load (such as flying a fighter aircraft), designers take great care to reduce (ease) the cognitive load on the humans involved by automating as many routine cognitive tasks as possible, leaving e.g. the pilot to focus on the mission at hand as well as dealing with non-routine events.
I have seen few organisations where this principle applies to the design of the work, and almost none where it is applied to the design of “managerial” work. Accordingly, organisations inevitably have decision-makers overloaded with a wide range of cognitive tasks, resulting in poor or delayed decisions or worse. Ironic then, that a focus on making individuals specifically responsible increases the cognitive bottleneck and thereby exacerbates exactly those issues – smoothy, timely operations and quality of service – which e.g. RACI and the like claim to help solve.
– Bob

Further Reading

The Responsibility Virus ~ Roger Martin
The Fallacy of “One Throat to Choke” ~ Post on Mike Cohn’s blog
In Search of Excellence ~ Tom Peters
A Twist of the Wrist – Keith Code – On Cognitive Easement in motorcycle racing

  1. Great post. I have long been frustrated by this idea of “accountability” falling on a single person, and the myth that if “one person isn’t responsible then no one is”. Of course this is true in organizations that lack worker engagement, but as you point out this is exactly what needs to be fixed, rather than focusing on more band-aid solutions. This post makes the problem—and the effective solution—very clear. Nicely done.

  2. Petter Abrahamsen said:

    Bob love your pen – great reading both this article and the others on your site.
    I very much agree that setting up a RACI, no matter how clear, will never replace both commitment and true leadership. On the other hand if one can achieve both having a clear idea of who is to do what (made visual with a RACI or other kind of matrix) and commitment and true leadership it might be a winning formula. The most important thing about setting up a RACI, for me, is to use the process of establishing it to negotiate and clarify the different stakeholders roles in a project (or piece of work). It can, as I feel you are pointing out, very quickly turn into a mecanical project tool that disperses both accountability and authority in the wrong hands. But if used correctly, and reinforced by a positive leadership culture, it can be used to make sure that all that should have a voice in a project are involved. This I think can help gain involvment and not least commitment. For me it’s all about transparency and getting people on board.

    • Hi Petter,

      Thanks for joining the conversation. Leaving aside the issue of leadership (for which, see post “Fellowship”), I suggest that clarity on who-does-what is dysfunctional, in that it introduces (or compounds) alienation, demarcation, and, in extremis, an unhelpful “it’s not my job” dynamic. Better, I feel, to help folks practice the identification, negotiation and selection of roles *dynamically*, as the situation dictates.

      I find that positive leadership cultures are very rare, and even when present, generally inject sufficient dysfunctional dynamics as to be of highly questionable value (i.e. a net dis-benefit).

      I find some hope in your closing sentence, although the metaphor of “getting people on board” does cause me to ask “whose bus is it?”


      • Petter Abrahamsen said:

        First off – the metaphor used was not about getting on a bus (although I see that that could make sense) but about climbing onboard a boat and getting ready to man and sail it. A kind of all hands on deck approach. The nice thing about sailing is that once on board all usually have a common goal – even if they can have very different roles and tasks. The skipper’s main task is to make sure everybody on board is given the best conditions to bring the best out of the boat and the crew. Because everybody knows the different roles and tasks, and has a clear picture of how this is important to success, it’s easy to help one and other and if necessary take over a role or task. The consequences of failing to do this would be that all aboard will sink together if things go wrong.
        Setting the metaphor aside for a moment – I can see how a strictly structured approach to segregation of responsibilities could wreak havoc on a small to medium sized project at one location. But what about large projects that impact many different parts of an organization, maybe even spread across different locations, what if resources are scarce and securing focus on a larger picture is important, what if it is important to structure the different stakeholder’s involvement (legal considerations, involvement of labor unions, etc.). I think that one, especially in the public sector, very often will encounter the need for some kind of structured approach to describing and handling the different stakeholder’s involvement. A RACI matrix can be used to achieve transparency into who has what say in a project – it can be taken up to negotiation to ensure that all interests are taken into account.
        I think what I’m trying to say is that there, in my mind, is no one answer to whether use a RACI or not. It’s like any other tool we have – in the wrong hands can make a mess or nothing at all. On the other hand, used correctly and with other appropriate tools by a craftsman in the right setting, it can bring out masterpieces.

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