First Responsible Moment

You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today. – Abraham Lincoln

Responsible is defined as “being the primary cause of something and so able to be blamed or credited for it.” While this sounds very straight-forward, I think sometimes in growing in our agility as a team, a leader or an individual we can forget the power of this word.

Responsibility is a cornerstone to agile thought in my opinion. We strive to teach our teams to be self-managing and instill the idea at the lowest possible level by having them select the work and manage its delivery. As agile leaders, we embrace responsibility coupled with our willingness to experiment, learn and grow and as a basis to keep at bay the fears of failure.

There are three core concepts that I try to instill and reinforce in teams; I ask that they apply a litmus test of reasonableness and responsibility to decisions they make (on an individual, team and organizational scale) and that they respect the power of the “first responsible moment”.

Being Reasonable and Responsible

What does this really mean? It sounds powerful, but also sounds very idealistic. For me, it is very pragmatic. I use these values for myself and my teams as a base “sanity check” for decision making.

Approaching decisions from a position of being reasonable and responsible breaks down this way for me personally allowing me to examine the decision to be made by asking questions:

  • Is what I am proposing an idea or solution that brings value not just to myself but to my team as a whole and the organization?
  • Is this a hotfix solution or does it hold long term value?
  • Am I proposing something from a position of fear or merely pain avoidance?
  • Is what is being considered the right thing for us to be doing?
  • Do I actually believe in this idea in that I could passionately communicate and adapt this position if necessary?

This seems like a lot of “stuff” to go through for a decision but it is really quite simple as when people have a shared understanding of “being reasonable” it really takes little time as muscle memory forms to evaluate quickly (reinforced by a solution oriented outlook).

But here is where the kicker comes in. Evaluation as to the reasonableness is half of the picture for an agile mindset. The final question is the linchpin of this approach.

“Are we willing to be personally and team responsible for the outcome of the decision we are making”?

This takes this application of values to a whole different level. This means should things go sideways, are we willing to accept the consequences of our decision and adapt to self-correct? Are we willing to accept that we failed? Are we willing to re-evaluate our position?

Coupling this with the personal willingness to accept the end result of the action is part of the core definition for this idea.

So why “first responsible moment”?

Again, in my humble opinion, this idea is a cornerstone of agile thinking and doing. It helps support our lack of fear to fail and reinforce our open communication. It empowers us to be transparent and promotes healthy working relationships that reinforce trust among people. It is something that I say often to teams when they encounter a problem.

The “first responsible moment” is how we approach obstacles, problems and impacts. We open the channels of communications to those invested into our work as soon as we see a problem that may impact our commitments.

Often times, there is a lot of fear that surrounds the need to have a conversation that delivery may be less than forecasted. But if we are truly building a healthy agile culture, we use this concept to allow fear to be diminished by encouraging folks to communicate an obstacle or impact as soon as it becomes visible and disruptive.

This does not always necessarily mean the inability to overcome and deliver but what it does do is to set the expectations of everyone involved in a reasonable manner. It always opens a communication for examination to see if there is partial value that may be salvaged and it strengthens the relationships through candid visibility into work. It allows us to take a problem at first encounter and approach it as a discussion for solution.

In an agile (or probably any other) world, no one likes to fail. My teams wring their hands and sometimes beat themselves up too much so I ask them to reflect in retros on “what happened” to create this situation. Sometimes by doing that, we can see patterns of actions that set us up to get there. If we can find these, then we can take actionable steps to reduce the likelihood of failure under those exact sets of conditions. But what is more important (as you noticed I inferred that you cannot just generalize failure to certain things) is that we learn more about ourselves, our team and reinforce our embrace of change. Sometimes things like sickness of a team member can cause items to become in jeopardy.

It can often be random events that create an obstacle. We cannot control the unknown, but we can control our response to it. One of the worst things we can do as a team is to remain silent, kill ourselves to meet commitments for which we know may be unachievable and damage our relationships by waiting until the last moment to make people aware. This stands potential to damage us as team and an organization. We may get the commitment out, but what did we lose as a result? I am not naive to realize that there are times when we are so committed to our work we go “above and beyond” to deliver. But this should be the exception and not the rule. A sustainable pace is always a better approach coupled with the “first responsible moment” when impacts arise.

If you, or your teams, are not presently practicing this concept, give it a try. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how it can tighten the relationships and reinforce the core values of agility.



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