🫡 Total responsibility.

🙈 Somebody Else’s Problem

Recently my boss shared something with our Engineering Manager community dubbed ‘Somebody Else’s Problem’, or ‘SEP’. It’s a term coined by Douglas Adams in his 1982 novel ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’:

An SEP is something we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem. That’s what SEP means. Somebody Else’s Problem. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot.

(I haven’t read the book, but Wikipedia does a good job of explaining SEP in some more detail).

Anyway, it’s been on my mind ever since. I’ve been reflecting on the problems I’m ignoring across my teams because I’m blind to them, or I’ve subconsciously badged them as somebody else’s. That period of reflection led me to writing this post to share the concept more widely. Hopefully it prompts some thinking for you too!

🙋‍♂️ Success is our responsibility

The concept of SEP dovetails nicely into the idea of responsibility. As leaders, we are ultimately responsible for the success of our teams and the problems they encounter. Whether the problems are clearly ours to solve, or they impact us but belong to someone else, it’s our responsibility to address them. Seeking out those problems that fall in the SEP category is particularly important. I bet they’re the ones that are slowing you down or blocking your progress. I have blind spots, no doubt - but that’s where the wider team come in. If everyone takes complete responsibility for the problems infront of us, our chances of success get a big boost.

As companies grow and teams expand, it’s easy to slip into thinking that someone else will take care of a problem. But, this mindset can lead to a lack of responsibility and a negative culture. In my experience, as we hire more people and and ownership lines are drawn between roles and teams, it becomes more tempting to point fingers and ask, “why should I solve the problem if the person or team who should be solving it isn’t?”. This is where our SEP blind spots start creeping in, and on reflection, there are definitely problems that I can lean into more in my organisation.

💯 Total responsibility

Over Christmas I was listening to a podcast with Frank Lampard, a former professional footballer turned Premier League manager. He spoke about the importance of taking total responsibility for performance, both good and bad. He mentioned about how easy it is in football for players to think that team performance isn’t theirs to solve - blaming the defence, the strikers, or the tactics. He said something like:

‘If you want to get better, you have to take responsibility - for good or for bad, I suppose…’

His point resonated with me as I realised it doesn’t really matter about the situation - a scrappy startup, a large enterprise, or even a football team. If there’s a problem impacting us, it’s our responsibility to solve it - regardless of whether we think it’s somebody else’s problem to solve or not.

I know that things are more complicated in practice than this (and I could go on exploring the anti-patterns taking responsibility for everything might introduce…), but I really like this concept of total responsbility and how SEP impacts it. I’ll use this post to hold myself accountable to take total responsibility for the problems impacting me and my teams in future. In particular, I’ll be keeping myself honest about what problems I’m ignoring.

To Frank Lampard’s point, whether we like it or not - it’s our job to take responsibility if we want to get better.

Give me a shout if you’d like to talk about any of this or share your experiences too - I’m on a constant journey of learning and would love to hear from you 👨‍🏫

All images in this post are from https://undraw.co/