I recently had a conversation with a colleague about how to discuss career paths with employees. I had an “AHA” about a great way to eliminate the more painful conversations and how to focus on true opportunities for individual growth. It centered around the question: “In a particular role, what problem are you trying to solve?”
Before I share the insight, I want to share a few concepts about roles and their definitions.
Accountability vs. Responsibility
When I personally say that someone is ‘accountable’, I mean they own the results. When I say someone is responsible, they own an activity or task.
The Vice President of Sales is accountable for delivering $xxx million in revenue to a firm. However, the Vice President of Sales is typically not responsible for setting up individual sales calls. That responsibility sits with individual sales employees.
So, in your role, there are two things to consider: What are the expected results you are personally expected to deliver (accountability)? And, what are the activities and/or tasks you are expected to lead or participate in (responsibility)?
Now let’s revisit the original question:
“What Problem Are You Trying To Solve?”
Typically, the answer to this question is a result. A given outcome. That is your accountability. How you solve this problem is a list of your responsibilities.
I’ll share a quick story that I heard a while ago about a firehouse. Fire fighters were called to a six-story fire that had engulfed an entire building. They doused water on the right side of the building and were focusing on the sixth floor. They got the flames to go out on that floor and had almost won the war on the fifth floor.
All of a sudden the Captain screamed over the radios to stop and move all the way over to the left side of the building and put out a fire on the other side of the sixth floor. The fire fighters were frustrated. They said they just need another minute and the fire on the fifth floor on the right side would be extinguished.
The problem the firemen were trying to solve: Put out the fire.
The problem the Captain was solving: Save the entire building and make sure the foundation wasn’t becoming brittle by too quickly changing the temperature.
The Project Manager Role
So as a Project Manager what problem are you solving? I believe you are accountable for clear visibility of progress, and enabling effective communication across the project.
Your responsibilities to accomplish these goals might include a Wall Gantt, daily stand ups, daily cycle testing and more. Keep in mind, however, that just performing these activities so you can cross them off your to-do list, does not mean you are being responsible. You still need to get the desired result.
How does the accountability vs. responsibility perspective help us understand opportunities for growth? Let’s start by contrasting the role of the Project Manager with that of the Senior Project Manager.
The Senior Project Manager Role
A Project Manager recently asked me what it would take to get a promotion to Senior Project Manager. What skills would she need to learn and/or demonstrate? What conditions would she need to meet?
In my experience, this kind of conversation for many roles within a company is very common and often painful. This typically turns into a judgmental conversation, determining whether someone is ready to move up to a more senior role. For example, even if they learned a skill, there can be debate as to whether they have demonstrated it to the right level of proficiency.
In my conversation with this Project Manager, I used a different approach. I asked her:
“What problem does a Senior Project Manager solve?”
She answered that Senior Project Managers solve very similar problems to Project Managers. However, they can run larger, more complex projects.
AHA! After her answer, I was finally able to have a healthy conversation about the differences in roles, without the typical pain.
I started explaining that I expect Senior Project Managers to solve the problem of growing the PM organization to target staffing numbers and skill levels. That is their Accountability. They also are accountable to make sure the project delivers the expected results, but the “growing the organization” is something that this Project Manager never considered.
The Senior Project Manager’s responsibilities to grow the organization,I explained, include helping to figure out what gaps exist with the existing organization, how to train and close the gap, what is the required succession strategy for growth, and so on.
When we discussed the Senior Project Manager role in these terms, the Project Manager genuinely appreciated the new view and understood what she should work on. In fact, she said the first thing she needed to spend time on is getting a better understanding of what problems a Senior Project Manager is expected to solve. After she ‘got it’, she could focus on understanding what skills were needed.
This approach can help in any role discussion. For example, in subsequent conversations with developers, it gives us a framework for understanding what it means to be a senior developer or architect. They solve entirely different problems.
Going back to the fireman example, if any fireman ever wanted to get a promotion, they need to understand the problem(s) the Captain solves. It is different than “just putting out a fire”.