I’m sure that you remember story of everybody, somebody, anybody, and nobody. Pick any task, job, or project you like. Here’s how it goes.
Everybody thought that somebody would do it. It was something anybody could have done, but nobody did.
When you think about your own organization, are there things that have fallen through the cracks? Are there tasks that should have been done long ago, but because they were always left for somebody else, they never actually got done? Have you had to do something that you thought anybody would do because nobody did it in the end?
You see, when we think about a story like this, it’s easy to imagine it happening to someone else.
For example, when we hear about how a company was fined by the court because they gave a new employee a manual so he could learn how to use a forklift rather than providing him with proper training, or how another firm was prosecuted for discriminating against a woman by asking about her intentions to start a family – when we hear about such things, we tend to think that those things could never happen at our company. And that’s because everybody knows it, somebody would tell someone else what to do in those circumstances, and anybody would do it in view of the facts. But the truth is nobody does.
These examples are real. I have a newspaper story in front of me right now that describes the exact situation with the forklift operator; and I’ve seen reports of employment tribunal findings that reported on the second one. I’m sure that you have, too.
No organization is immune, least of all yours.
How can these things happen? How is it that nobody does what anybody could do, that somebody should have done, and the everybody knew about? How could failings as serious as these occur?
I can think of three reasons, and here they are.
1. It’s trivial.
In the cold light of day, training someone on how to use a forklift may seem like a no-brainer. But when deadlines are tight, people are off sick, and there are so many orders that the deliveries are late, this can seem unimportant relative to more pressing demands.
We shouldn’t be too judgmental about it when it happens to others. There but for the grace of God goes you.
In this case, the operator was injured when the machine fell over. That certainly was an unnecessary tragedy; but would you have breezed over the training in similar circumstances? If there were just two of you in the warehouse two days before Christmas, and your boss was breathing down your neck to get the delivery trucks loaded, would you have been tempted to put the new guy in the forklift so that you could use your experience and knowledge to get the products onto the pallets?
I’m not talking about tasks being trivial absolutely; rather I’m asking you to see them as such when they’re compared with everything else that’s going on at the time.
2. It’s below your rank, grade, or skill level.
One of the things that used to really annoy me was when managers decried the state of the staff break area and then did nothing about it. The best that they could do would be to shake their heads and wander out the door. It never seemed to occur to them that if it was as bad as all that, that spending a few minutes doing the washing up would speak volumes about their concern and set an unforgettable example to the staff.
In today’s organizations, nothing is beneath you. If it needs to be done and you notice it, unless the place is on fire, you need to do it yourself. Don’t leave something that you can do for somebody else. It’s worth remembering that, in all probability, things have gotten to the stage that they have because somebody had the same brilliant idea.
What about the story of the Good Samaritan
Somebody has been beaten up and left for dead. Anybody could have stopped to help him. Everybody who went passed should have. But almost nobody did.
The priest certainly should have. He would have routinely preached the importance of caring for others in their time of need, and exhorting them to love their neighbors as themselves.
The Levite should have. He was from the tribe whose God-ordained job was to minister in the synagogue on behalf of the Israelites. He would have had an intimate knowledge of the 10 Commandments.
But neither of these people did anything. In fact, they did their best to ignore the man.
Who stopped to help? Somebody who had compassion on the victim. In this case, a Samaritan; somebody who was part of a race – mixed race – that the Jews hated.
The point is that if you see something that needs to be done, instead of leaving it for everybody else, you need to do it yourself.
3. Nobody is held accountable for doing it.
It used to be said that if you wanted anything done right, you needed to do it yourself. But the only jobs that people insist on doing themselves are the ones that they care about. The rest are simply ignored. They’re fobbed off on someone else. And when that happens, accountability usually goes out the window. That’s because of the tendency to follow up only on those things we care about.
The fact is that you do have to follow-up. You will have to make sure that it’s done, and you will have to verify that it’s up to standard. Not in every case, nor in every detail. But often enough to make sure that when it’s delegated, you know that it has been done as it should.
You must trust the person to whom you’ve delegated it, but you must also do periodic checks.
That’s what accountability looks like.
So the next time you see something that needs to be done, don’t wait for somebody to do what everybody knows about, or that anybody could do.
Do it yourself, or delegate it.
Otherwise, you may find that in the end, nobody does it at all.