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Many cooks, but nobody’s cooking

We are all familiar with the idiom: “Too many cooks spoil the broth”, but I see something else more commonly.  Rather than everyone interfering with the work at hand such that the broth is bad, I see the behaviour where the cooks each spend time focused on _why_ it isn’t for them to cook, and as a result we all go hungry.  Perhaps: “Many cooks, but nobody’s cooking”.

In my case, the broth can be critical service situations, incident/ticket/event handling, bug fixing or similar, with teams resisting ownership or action.  Some teams spend significant energy demonstrating why it can’t be their responsibility, their platform or their code: “it’s not in _my_ part of the module, someone else is responsible; that other team always has issues; my monitoring says it’s fine; speak to xyz instead” etc.  There isn’t any automatic collaboration driving to a goal until, eventually, someone steps up – maybe one of the cooks, maybe a manager, worse still a customer – to coordinate effort and reach a conclusion.

I presume that no-one designs a system in this way?  We may intentionally have silos of expertise (it’s impossible not to have specialisms as soon as scale kicks in) but we didn’t intentionally create cultures where “proving it’s not me” is more important than solving the issue for a Customer/colleague did we?  I presume instead we just “expect people to work together to reach a result when it matters”?

So why does this behaviour occur and what can we do about it?  In my experience, this kind of behaviour has observable causes that are (with few exceptions) caused by organisations themselves.  Some examples:

  1. Lack of clarity – Are team/role expectations clear?  Does the vision/purpose of the function align to the outcome we want?  Are people expected to collaborate towards a goal?
  2. Conflicting goals – Are other goals prioritised that would prevent engagement?  If people have multiple goals, what information do they have that would ensure they choose the right path?  Are measures established that support the outcome?
  3. Fear of failure / fault – Is it ok for people to fail?  If someone takes responsibility for a service/situation, are they supported?  If I step forward and admit a fault, what will the consequences be (discipline/loss of reputation/cost in time)?
  4. Lack of engagement – How knowledgeable are people about the outcomes they contribute to?  Do people avoid accountability?  Without asking, do people hang around (even for a little while) to conclude work after hours when it ‘matters’?

None of these situations are healthy for a team or company, and the good news is that they can be resolved with a some sustained (but not massive) effort.  Begin by answering these questions above (from a team/individual’s viewpoint, not as a manager!) and see what drops out.  You may just find something you can do today to start changing for the better.  If you ask the questions and it doesn’t get you there, ask others for help to identify what’s happening so you can develop strategies to handle it.

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