Responsibility without authority is just janitorial service

April 30, 2021
If your task is to keep things tidy, but can't enforce the use of a tidy practices, you're a janitor.

A few years ago I was working at a large IT company with a company-wide mantra of “Take ownership!”

I imagine most of us work in such places, regardless of the size of the company. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. I’m sure most of us can agree that proactivity is a good thing.

The problem at this company came in that there was also another policy in place: nobody had authority to make decisions. This was framed as a positive attribute of having a “flat structure”, and there can be merits to that, when done responsibily.

The problem here was that these two, well-meaning policies had a disasterous effect when they operated together, by undermining true “ownership”.

If you’re given responsibility of keeping the office break room tidy, but you’re not allowed to tell people to use a trash can, or put their coffee cups in the dishwasher, you don’t have ownership. You’re just on janitorial dutiy.

The same happens in your technology. Someone tasked with keeping the software deployment working, but without the authority to tell others “don’t merge that broken code” or “don’t upload 57 terabytes of warez to our S3 bucket” is really acting as an IT janitor.

True ownership includes both responsibility and authority.

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