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The Fly In The Middle Of The Room

by | Collaboration

I had a routine visit to the doctor the other day, and after checking-in and signing some forms I made my way to the waiting area. The area was fairly crowded, with people thumbing through the latest issues of People and Newsweek, but because I’d had a fairly busy morning I decided to just sit and “zone out” for a few minutes.

As soon as my rear hit the chair, something caught my eye. Right in the center of the waiting area, sitting on the tiled floor, was a rather large, dead house fly. It was pretty conspicuous to anyone who wasn’t stuffing their head with the latest Kardashian gossip or updates on Egypt.

A thought sprang to mind: who is going to pick that up?

There was a steady flow of patients, nurses, doctors and staff cycling through the room, but for the duration of my twenty-minute wait no one made the effort to bend over and pick up the fly, though a several did notice it.

I’m sure the thought process went something like “oh…I’ll get that later” or “that’s someone else’s job”. (* Oh, and that applies to me too. As I was scribbling the outline for this blog post, the nurse called me in for my appointment and I never got around to picking up the fly.)

I started thinking about distributed accountability within organizations, and how when everyone is responsible for something, no one is. One of the biggest problems I have to drill down on with creative leaders is ensuring that they are communicating accountability for the work and assigning specific responsibility for delivering it.

When everyone is responsible for something, no one is.

We will only do enough work to not get fired. We will only do enough work to please the client, but never challenge the process. We will only do enough work to make sure that the boss is happy with the effort, even if it goes against our better creative instincts.

It’s the “fly in the middle of the room”. When everyone is responsible for the common area, no one is. Not patients, not doctors, not nurses, not staff. Maybe the night janitorial crew, but not in a pinch.

Do yourself and your team a favor. Make sure that each project has specific accountability – with ONE person ultimately responsible for results – and defined metrics for what success will look like. Anything less leaves too much room for disaster.

Todd Henry

Todd Henry

Positioning himself as an “arms dealer for the creative revolution”, Todd Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of five books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, Herding Tigers, The Motivation Code) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work.

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  1. Stella Stopfer

    just had a breakthrough! this is what I was trying to figure out during the last few weeks, how to move my team forward. thanks so much!

  2. Nancy Cameron

    …and likewise when EVERYBODY is responsible, yet not taking responsibility, there is no accountability. I live with this everyday and it’s a challenge. Sounds like a Seinfeld episode, “everything yet nothing”.

    Thanks Todd! Great words, as usual.

    • Todd Henry

      Thanks Nancy. Hadn’t considered how that equation works both ways, but you’re correct.

  3. Jean Burman

    Good analogy Todd. The fly in the middle of the room is bigger than the elephant that’s just standing there looking stupid! [grin] I wonder what would happen if those doctors nurses or staff had shares in the practice [a vested financial interest] would that be enough for one or all of them to take possession of “the problem”? Or would it still be someone else’s job? [But surely not the patient’s] Who knows.

    • Todd Henry

      I really don’t know, and I don’t mean to turn “nothing” into “something”. I mean, it’s perfectly understandable how this would happen. It was just a reminder to me that there is always danger when there is a lack of specific accountability. Thanks for your comments!

  4. Anonymous

    Thank You for your honesty…. SOMEONE had to say it!!!
    The fly served his purpose well… Rest In Peace, Fly…

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