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Responsibility vs. Risk: Building Resilient Product Teams and a Culture of Excellence

Responsibility vs. Risk: Building Resilient Product Teams and a Culture of Excellence

  • Product Leadership /

Jonathon Hensley

In the dynamic landscape of digital product management, the culture we cultivate within our teams often determines the trajectory of success. A pivotal facet of this culture is the intertwined relationship between individual responsibility and our tolerance for risk. How we perceive and leverage these foundational elements can significantly influence our ability to navigate the complex challenges and uncertainties inherent in product management.

If you’re a product leader, a product manager, or an integral part of a product development team, understanding this delicate relationship between accountability and risk is paramount. This article delves into this complex relationship, challenging traditional assumptions and offering a fresh perspective on building a resilient, adaptable, and innovative product culture. As we proceed, you’ll gain valuable insights on how to revolutionize your product management, enhance team resilience, and create an environment that embraces calculated risks for unmatched success.

Embracing Risk and Responsibility: Key to Successful Product Teams

There is a fascinating relationship between individual responsibility and our tolerance for risk. As humans, we exhibit a curious, and sometimes extreme variation in how we perceive ourselves and our roles in relation to responsibility. When facing failure, some people instinctively attribute blame to external factors: the economy, management, or someone else. Meanwhile, others perceive failure from the polar opposite end of the pendulum, focusing the lens internally and assigning blame to themselves: they failed to make the right choices, didn’t work hard enough, or lacked the necessary talent. These assessments are less grounded in reality than they are in psychology; reflecting not what is real, but how we perceive reality.

The individual who is more likely to blame external factors usually has a higher sense of self-worth and confidence, thinking “Of course, the problem wasn’t me. I’m awesome.” Conversely, those who take greater personal responsibility for failures tend to have a more modest self-perception and attribute their success to hard work rather than pure innate talent.

On this spectrum, there exists an unexpected relationship between taking ownership of results and risk-taking. When an individual is highly confident yet takes minimal ownership of their failures, they are likely to be low-risk takers. One might assume that those who perceive themselves as more talented and less responsible for failure would be the highest risk-takers. It has been confirmed repeatedly that a high view of oneself, combined with low personal responsibility for failure, can dramatically undermine a person’s success. For these individuals, there is a need to have a greater sense of control. 

In contrast, a more grounded sense of self, coupled with high personal responsibility for failure, positions an individual to exhibit greater resilience and courage when facing necessary challenges. These individuals embrace the unavoidable unknown. One might assume that the person who views themselves as less talented, attributes success to hard work, and takes high personal responsibility for failure would be adverse to taking risks. However, the opposite is true. When you take responsibility for failure, you have the power to change the outcome. If it was your failure, you have the ability to modify the actions that will determine the outcome. Conversely, if you are blameless and have no relationship to the failure, you are powerless to change both the outcome and the potential for success.

You can observe this contrast in the type of language commonly heard when listening to certain individuals in leadership roles, team members, or external partners during meetings. If they find themselves on the losing side of a situation, they deflect responsibility and shift the blame to others or situational circumstances beyond their control. However, if they are on the succeeding side, they are likely to view it as further evidence of their greatness, claiming responsibility for the victory while absolving themselves of responsibility for any failures or shortcomings. They take ownership of success but deflect failure.

This is a common dynamic within many struggling product teams.  When clarity and focus are absent, there is misalignment on where value is created and which product outcomes are necessary to propel the success of the business. When a team fails to meet expectations, they may claim it was due to someone else, the agreed-upon plan was something they would have executed differently, insufficient resources, or an external variable. Often, when an individual fails to meet expectations, they will try to shift the focus to their manager or another team member. They assume someone is to blame, and the one thing that is certain is that it is not their fault. If they succeed, of course, they claim it as further evidence of their personal excellence.

Product Team Mindset: A ‘Yes We Can’ Culture that Takes Challenges Head On

“I define a leader as anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.”

Brene Brown, Research Professor and CEO of The Daring Way

Recently, I met with a group of product leaders who shared their struggles with reaching their various goals. Although the teams had strong relationships, there was a lack of alignment and accountability. Many of the products shared similar attributes, value was delivered incrementally and multiplied over time but lacked a clear value loop and mechanism to drive customer growth and achieve the next level of scale. One CPO in particular felt profoundly frustrated. Not only was their team not meeting their goals, but also because each time they tried to realign, they found one reason after another why it wasn’t going to be possible. The product culture challenges needed to be immediately addressed. Accountability needed to be reset to assume the necessary risks to achieve success.

This is a perfect example of people having a high self-image with a low sense of responsibility shifting blame to someone or something else when things go wrong. It’s essential to remember that taking responsibility for your contribution and impact is where your power lies, rather than necessarily lowering your self-perception (although that may also be necessary if your ego is unchecked).

The journey of product leadership and management is one of ownership. Exceptional leaders take responsibility for their actions and the culture they cultivate around them. A leader understands that their success is measured not just by outcomes but by their intentions. Success is found in the courage to face challenges head-on, undaunted by potential failure. Failure does not diminish great leaders. A great leader sets aside their ego and strives to enhance the development of their team and business collaboratively.

Mastering Delegation: The Key to Building a Resilient and Empowered Product Leadership

“The great leaders are not the strongest, they are the ones who are honest about their weaknesses. The great leaders are not the smartest; they are the ones who admit how much they don’t know. The great leaders can’t do everything; they are the ones who look to others to help them. Great leaders don’t see themselves as great; they see themselves as human.”

Simon Sinek, Author of “Start With Why” and “The Infinite Game”

Perhaps one of the most profound skills of a great leader is that of delegation. Effective delegation allows team members to grow, develop their skills, and take on more responsibilities. However, delegation is not merely about assigning tasks to others; it is a complex process riddled with challenges that need to be understood as you build product culture excellence. 

Many individuals fear a loss of control. Delegation implies a certain degree of relinquishing control. With honest transparency, it is within our human nature that entrusting control to others can instigate feelings of fear and/or anxiety. You may worry that tasks won’t be completed to anticipated standards, or important details may be overlooked. Delegation challenges you to put your trust in an individual’s competence. Misjudgments and projections can lead to inundating some team members while under-utilizing others.  Delegation obligates you to promote fluid communication in order to ensure clear, concise, and comprehensive concurrency. Fluid communication with a shared, collective understanding is imperative to circumventing any misunderstandings of expectations and task requirements that will result in poor performance.

A product culture that understands these challenges and addresses them is empowered and promotes an environment where everyone is responsible and creates the opportunity to accept more risk, challenging the status quo. In this environment, there is a continuous feedback loop of communication that promotes trust. Blame is not a permissible response to failure in an aligned product culture.  

Embracing Failure: The Unforeseen Gateway to Successful Teams and a Resilient Product Culture

If your self-perception exceeds reality, you may avoid taking significant risks to protect yourself from the potentially devastating impact of failure. However, if you view failure as a temporary condition and believe that hard work can see you through, you are more likely to take larger risks. Those who habitually take great risks are intimately familiar with failure’s impact. Ironically, if failure is not an option, neither are risks. Failure is a necessary ingredient of success and is not terminal. Embracing failure can forge a path to change, progress, and success.

Colleen Murphy, Copy Editor

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