Though it’s a years-old news story, Volkswagen produced a diesel-powered car which was designed to pass emissions checks although, under normal operation, the vehicle produced emissions which would not have met an acceptable threshold. The company threw a newly-minted engineering middle manager under the bus for cars being shipped with this emissions-check-defeating feature. This abuse of power placed responsibility for a clear flouting of emissions laws directly on someone who was not in a position to drive design or business decisions. The emissions system in cars typically goes through a number of hands, and checks before mass production. This means coordination would have been necessary between many teams to produce a vehicle which would violate US law.
If we look at the chain of responsibility in software development, each time a project manager tells a software developer they are “accountable to complete all work by the end of the sprint” it is an assignment of responsibility. Accountability would involve communicating as work is being done, surfacing new risks, providing insight into the progress being made. Instead, the developer is being told, if they fail to foresee all risk, and surface it before beginning the work will be held responsible for “failing the sprint”.
In the cycle of promotion, a developer may be placed in a lead position. Once they are put in that position, they are informed “the management is looking for a throat to choke”. In other words, the lead is not responsible for guiding and aiding the team. Instead they are put in place as a responsibility fall-person, or a developer whip.
Ultimately, it is so common for responsibility to be pushed downward into the laps of the people doing the work, I find it difficult to point out teams I have seen in which responsibility is intentionally held by management.
Money should flow toward the author – Yog’s Law
What Yog’s law is referring to is the need for authors to limit their outlay of money while looking for publication. Authors perform the creative work, they do the legwork to find publishers, and they submit their work. Once the work is submitted, the publishers need not ask for payment to review and publish the work. In fact, publishers will typically profit from publishing written works. Authors may not always get paid for their work, but the flow of money should not move from the author toward the publisher.
I don’t remember exactly when I first became aware of Yog’s Law, but I do know I was playing bass in a gigging band. When you look for gigs, you have to deal with venues and all of the foibles that come with. The good venues listen to a demo of some sort, check out the band, and then decide whether the band will be a good fit to play. It’s kind of an interview process, and it’s tough. The bad venues are “pay to play”. The venue requires the band to pay for tickets up-front which they must resell to get people out to the show.
Yog’s Law talks about the flow of money toward authors, but it could really be said about any creative endeavor. I used Yog’s Law as an argument for why my band must not play at pay-to-play venues, and we didn’t. We played bars, county fairs, house parties, and all kinds of other shows. We often played for free, especially in the beginning. We never went out of pocket to play.
I would go so far as to say, Yog’s Law, at its core, is about power. Money is representative of power The flow of money is indicative of the direction power flows in a creator/publisher relationship. Creators perform the act of making a thing, but publishers hold the power to disseminate the work. In writing, publishers distribute the work, and hold the purse strings. In the case of my old band, the venue acted as the publisher. In an employment environment, the worker is representative of the author. The business, and those who guide it, act as the publisher.
The Power Lemma
Power should flow toward the worker.
If Yog’s Law is about power, then the flow of money is representative of the flow of power. I believe the relationship between money and power is pretty clear in the wild. Though power may not always come with money, typically, with money comes power. This means, someone who holds power over another person likely also controls the flow of money to that person.
If we scratch the surface just a bit, we can see how the publisher holds power by controlling the flow of money. Let’s assume, for a moment, that a publisher were to violate Yog’s Law. Money would flow from the author, to the publisher. Since a publisher controls the flow of money, and with it the power in the relationship, this reversal of monetary flow would be an abuse of power.
In the author/publisher relationship, when the flow of money is reversed, it becomes a relationship where the publisher requires money from the author. There are, in fact, publishers who require authors to pay review, editing, or even publication fees. Publishers who do this kind of thing are referred to as “predatory publishers”. In a broader sense, the reversal of Yog’s Law is an abuse of power, and produces predatory behavior.
This abuse of power extends to any creator/publisher relationship, including a work relationship. When a manager consolidates power, they disempower the people they manage. This disempowerment is an abuse of the power the manager holds. This same principle holds for the managers up the org chart.
The flow of power should be toward the worker. If we consider software development – an occupation with which I am intimately familiar – each developer must be empowered to make decisions about the tasks they perform. Much of the work done in (and out) an office requires a significant amount of latitude to be done well.
Workers need to feel they have the power to decide how to best accomplish the task at hand. When someone is disempowered, they feel micromanaged. A disempowered worker, for instance, begins to seek managerial approval for even the smallest tasks, which slows the process of producing work and hamstrings the delivery of value.
The Shoulder Tap
Due to the pandemic, people have been working remotely. As the number of vaccinated people rises, there is a discussion of what remote work looks like for companies going forward. People are urged to return to the office. Managers are expressing concern that there is a reduced level of collaboration with remote work, because people are not colocated.
There is a common refrain, “I can’t tap someone on the shoulder”.
As Chelsea Troy points out in her article about the shoulder tap, it is an exertion of power. In the article she points out, the manager is exerting power over the time and ability of the developer to do work. There are a number of reasons why the shoulder tap is disruptive, but I’d like to explore it from the flow of power perspective.
When a worker is working, they exercise their power to work on the task at hand, and produce some sort of result. The ownership of control over time and thought process is granted through empowerment to perform their work in the most effective way they can.
When a manager taps the worker on the shoulder, they have reclaimed the power granted to the person doing the work. Instead of power flowing toward the worker, the power has flowed back up to the manager.
When this shoulder-tap behavior happens regularly it is an exertion of power over the person doing the work. It is a means for the manager to seize control over the workday and steer it to their whim. We generally refer to this as micromanagement, but we can also consider it an abuse of power. Much like the predatory publishers who require authors to pay for publication, micromanagers perform predatory management, controlling the way workers approach their work and manage their time.
The Responsibility Corollary to Yog’s Law
Responsibility should flow toward management
I’ve worked with managers who “empowered” workers by saying “you’re empowered to do whatever you think is best!” Of course, this is anything but empowerment. The problem is, there is no flow of power to the worker. Instead, there is a statement that the worker can simply do what they think may be best, but without any sense of support or guidance. In this kind of relationship, the worker becomes the responsible party, and must answer to people the manager is normally accountable to.This act of disempowerment through bestowing responsibility is what I would call responsibility shifting.
Empowering someone involves not only providing the latitude to do the work, but also, the guidance to identify an acceptable first approach, and the support to learn from the outcome. Empowerment requires energy and dedicated flow of power. When someone is trying something new, or different, there is a chance they will struggle and fail. I call this process of discovery, work, and reflection an experiment.
When failure happens, support is imperative, and it must come from someone with the power to shoulder responsibility for the experiment. The worker who ran the experiment was granted the power to do this, therefore they don’t have the power to carry the responsibility. The burden of responsibility must fall squarely on the shoulders of the person who empowered the worker.
As power flows toward the worker, responsibility flows toward management. This interchange of power and responsibility is core to the success of any one worker, team, or department. When power or responsibility flows in the wrong direction, it can lead to abuse, toxicity, and team failure.
A common workplace discussion involves discussing accountability. People are said to be accountable to someone for the work to be done. Most often accountability is brought up by someone suggesting there was a promise made which has, or will, come due. Of course, if we are looking at a power/responsibility interchange, then this notion of accountability begins to fall apart.
So, what of accountability, then?
Accountability is often weaponized, and its use signals someone is shifting responsibility, and retaining power; E.g. “you are being held accountable for your promise to deliver.” In fact, the dictionary definition of accountability states it is a synonym to responsibility. I would, however, like to offer a different perspective.
I propose a law of accountability:
Accountability is the induced communication responsibility between two people who share a power/responsibility interchange relationship.
In other words, when people exchange power and responsibility, accountability is the responsibility for communication they share as partners in the work being done. The only way for responsibility and power to flow through an organization is through a foundation of communication. When power flows to a worker, and responsibility flows to the manager, the worker and manager need to have a clear communication channel to support their cause.
This means the person empowered to do the work is responsible for providing clear communication to the person empowering them to do the work. By turns, the person providing the power to do the work is responsible for providing clear, regular communication to the person doing the work. This is to ensure the worker has what they need and is kept abreast of any changes in priority or severity which occur.
This power/responsibility interchange and accountability cycle requires significant effort. All of this human interaction and relationship maintenance is necessary, to provide the best possible chance of success.
In other words, for work to be done effectively, everyone who holds a stake in the project must provide the appropriate elements to ensure success.
Failure in Accountability
Let’s explore what happens when there is a failure in accountability. Since accountability provides a communication channel between the person empowering the worker, and the worker providing responsibility to the person empowering them, there are two places where accountability may fail.
Let’s first suppose the person empowered to do the work fails to uphold their accountability-driven communication. When a new risk emerges, and the person doing the work identifies it, but fails to communicate about it, it hobbles the person holding responsibility. This means the person doing the work has seized responsibility and has broken the power/responsibility interchange relationship expectation. Responsibility has flowed backward in the system and now resides with the person doing the work.
On the other hand, let’s suppose the person who empowered the worker fails to uphold their accountability communication. When a change in priority emerges and it is not communicated to the person doing the work, the work being done is inappropriate for expected outcomes, and the worker has been disempowered. The person empowering the worker has seized the power and has broken the power/responsibility interchange relationship expectation. Power has flowed backward in the system and now resides with the person originally empowering the worker.
Though Yog’s law was originally written to help new authors identify when they are being preyed upon, the implications in power and responsibility are far-reaching. In any effective team there must be a clear flow of power toward the people doing the work and a flow of responsibility toward the folks managing the people doing the work.
Accountability is induced by this power/responsibility interchange, and it drives the sustained health of the relationship. When the empowered people, and the responsible people are accountable to each other, work can be done more effectively, and value will be generated more readily.