Does responsibility mean to follow the rules?

There’s a misconception about responsibility that probably starts to establish in our brains during childhood. When we grow up, we get taught that responsibility means to follow the established rules of society (including our parents and the various educational institutions), which indeed is a good start. Now, the challenges we face in large software projects are much more complex and dynamic. The solutions can not be found in simple rules like doing your homework every day. Still, managers and also (to my surprise) many engineers are looking for simple panaceas to solve their problems automatically.

Agile processes are not a panacea and they are not easy to implement. […] These processes focus on code rather than documentation calling themselves agile because, unlike the traditional processes, they are adaptable, not rigid.

Everette R. Keith, New York University, Agile Software Development Processes

Organizations and projects are highly dynamic systems that need to be understood and analyzed. You can then start to react and make changes that hopefully lead in the right direction. The agile manifesto says “we value responding to change over following a plan”.

The idea behind true responsibility is to be able to observe and control the system you are responsible for. In cybernetics, it is called a feedback loop. This is exactly why implementing an agile process is the opposite of following the rules correctly. If you want to be successful, you must measure the results of your actions and adapt the rules accordingly.

If you put people in a responsible position but don’t give them full control, you either cause a conflict or, if you were successful, you block their natural problem solving mechanism. This usually happens before systems fail badly.

It is true, some common rules in the area of software engineering and agile management require pedantic exactness and rigor to lead to good results. But professional responsibility starts with measuring these results and adapting the rules accordingly. Although there are many well-written books out there, finding solutions that work has a lot to do with practical experience. Managers and team members must give the freedom to control to those, who are supposed to be responsible.