How agile leaders improve results with The Responsibility Process



This post originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.


Are your agile efforts missing something, but you can’t put your finger on it? Perhaps The Responsibility Process can help.

No business sector enjoys wider adoption of The Responsibility Process (described below) than the Agile/Lean/Scrum/Kanban/XP communities (hereafter, “agile” or “agility”).


It’s a great fit. The Responsibility Process is a potent and organic self-leadership tool for taking ownership and claiming the freedom, choice, and power that comes along with it. It’s a brilliant shared language for ownership and non-ownership, as well as an elegant core organizing (i.e., sense-making) tool.

Each of these whys speaks directly to core values and principles of agile.

Many agile leaders and coaches find The Responsibility Process priceless in their own agility, and in building agile teams, leaders, and cultures. Speaking about The Responsibility Process, an agile leadership development client wrote: “I am very impressed with its depth, power, and subtlety.”

However, for many agile leaders and coaches, it isn’t clear at all what The Responsibility Process offers them. This post is an attempt to make more explicit connections between agility and The Responsibility Process.

In this post, I’m going to assume you are acquainted with the rapidly expanding agile movement in software, project management, product development, and business. If not, the Hacker Chic offers a quick overview.

The Responsibility Process isn’t nearly as well-known as agile. I’ll describe it briefly, then point to nine specific connections between agility and The Responsibility Process.

What is The Responsibility Process?

The Responsibility ProcessThe Responsibility Process shows how the mind processes thoughts about taking or avoiding responsibility. It is a predictable mental pattern alive in all of us, and the first “how-to” approach for understanding, taking and teaching personal responsibility.

The power of the model is that it changes the conversation about responsibility from one about morality and character, to a conversation about learning and growth.

The process, or pattern, is triggered because something seems wrong, even small things:

  • a car stops short in front of you,
  • a critical team member skips an important meeting,
  • there’s no coffee left.

Since life and work seldom seem perfect, this mental pattern is quite active in all of us.

Each position in the chart is a mental state with its own cause-effect logic. When processing thoughts about problems, we (unconsciously and naturally) start at the bottom where the cause-effect logic is simplistic and the computational effort is low. If we like (i.e., accept) the answer our mind offers us (It’s his fault!), we settle into the simplistic cause-effect logic of that mental state. For example, in Lay Blame, we are sure that someone else must change for our problem to go away. If we don’t accept the answer our mind offers us, then we graduate up the chart. So taking responsibility is ultimately our courageous refusal to accept our mind’s attempts to help us deny, blame, justify, shame oneself, or feel trapped in obligation.

Only in the mental state of Responsibility do we free our mind to access our creative and complex reasoning pathways in order to learn, grow, and overcome the problem. In Lean terms, we say that below the line is wasted thought and action; above the line is valuable thought and action.

Of course, there is a lot of “depth, power, and subtlety” beneath this brief introduction. Search on “The Responsibility Process” to find many more resources. Look especially for those posted by agilists.

Agility and responsiveness


As an agile practitioner matures they usually see agile tools, processes, and methodologies as the easy part of agility. It’s the people, culture, and leadership that can be most challenging. That’s where The Responsibility Process comes in.

The Responsibility Process represents a meta skillset, so the connections to agility are also meta, more at the level of principle than practice. This meta quality is the potency of The Responsibility Process that so many agilists recognize. That same meta quality allows for the lack of obvious applicability that leads others to shrug. It’s an exceptional tool for self-leadership. It’s a useless tool for controlling people or process.

Here are some of the specific connections I see for agile leaders and coaches to put The Responsibility Process into daily practice.

Results-focused self-organization

As a sense-making tool, The Responsibility Process can add significant lubrication to moment-by-moment thought and action in agile teams, programs, and enterprises. A Scrum Alliance article about Scrum Core Values states “… team responsibility in Scrum is critical.” But to get to team responsibility, one wants individuals operating from the mental state of responsibility so they can make sense of obstacles, conflicts, and upsets. Agile leaders and coaches who promote The Responsibility Process with their teams say that it is an extremely positive force for self-organization.


In thinking about agility and self-organizing, ask these questions:

  • Where do we hang out in The Responsibility Process when things don’t seem right?
  • How much time and energy do we waste in the coping states?
  • Do we know how this pattern works in our mind and how to practice responsibility so we can rapidly move back to valuable thought and action?

From this connection between agility and The Responsibility Process of self-organization we can move to some other connections between agility and responsibility (in no particular order of importance):

Owning and confronting impediments

The biggest problems are between rather than within silos (of whatever size: roles, teams, functions, organizations). Addressing them is a matter of putting personal and shared responsibility ahead of role accountability.

An ownership gap persists in most organizations where people are focused on their individual roles as opposed to optimizing the whole. This is evident in the paint-by-numbers approaches to agile process where people may be loathe to confront impediments. Instead, they ignore or hide impediments, choosing to cope with them rather than face and own them.


When groups of people adopt and practice The Responsibility Process together, they tend to be much more collaborative, mutually supportive, and holistic in their approach to problem-solving. They are aware of their own scarcity thinking. Practicing responsibility via The Responsibility Process often leads to “together we’re enough” thinking and to proposing and playing a bigger and more valuable game.

A flourishing ownership mindset and culture

Agile leaders and coaches use The Responsibility Process as a tool for problem-solving, for shared language around problems and challenges, and as a core organizing principle for the team or larger community to promote personal and shared responsibility and leadership. It is a powerful culture-building tool.

Here’s a recommendation from an agile coach to others in his company to study and apply The Responsibility Process. While he’s speaking specifically about their involvement in an eLearning community called The Leadership Gift Program, I’ve stripped most of his commentary about that to focus on The Responsibility Process.

Christopher’s work deeply transformed the way I work with clients well before he started that program and I have come to regard him as a personal friend. I encouraged Christopher to find a way to scale his work so it didn’t require local presence—partly because the world needs his work, and partly because I needed more access to his help. When he launched his first remote and scalable approach to this, I jumped in immediately.

Having shared my bias, I’ll reinforce my initial statement with these assertions:

Mastering personal responsibility is the foundation of Avery’s program. I suggest that this is also the most fundamental skill to behave in an agile manner. Every single agile tool I can offer a client is entirely negated if that client is operating non-responsibly. My ability to help them depends on my ability to help them rapidly return to a place of personal responsibility. Avery’s program is invaluable, perhaps indispensable, for anyone involved in coaching.

The Responsibility Process is the most useful coaching tool I’ve ever found.

—Ashley Johnson, Agile Coach, Industrial Logic

Greater humanity and respect

The Responsibility Process shows us that people are not bad or wrong for blaming or otherwise coping with problems rather than owning and addressing them, they are human. And humans are hardwired to cope when we don’t know how to grow. This awareness generates compassion, empathy, and listening, all of which bring humanity, belongingness, and positivity to agile organizations.

When leaders in a system stop blaming the people, they start taking ownership for the system they created. They realize that for things to change, they must change themselves and they must change the system so that people can thrive and be valuable.

The Responsibility Process is an exceptional tool for supporting leaders in understanding and changing themselves and the system. Many leaders, from team leads to CEOs call The Responsibility Process the secret sauce in their system.

Inspiring shared leadership

Leadership is often defined as taking responsibility for something larger than you, and in doing so, inspiring others to join you in your pursuit. So leadership isn’t title, position, authority, or status. It’s taking ownership of a problem, opportunity, or change, and mobilizing others to help through vision, purpose, and community.

Agility and The Responsibility Process both promote more leadership, not necessarily more leaders.

Peter Koestenbaum, the distinguished corporate philosopher, writes at length about the leadership mind and personal responsibility. The following is excerpted from one of his Weekly Leadership Thought emails (which I recommend subscribing to) titled Do You Choose to Activate Your Freedom?

The essence of a human being is this nonmaterial, nonbiological core of freedom, this divine sliver of light inside your body. … To be human is to harbor that freedom within, but to be a leader is to have chosen, with that very same freedom, to claim the power of freedom, to own it, to consciously and deliberately activate it in everything you do.

Nothing happens unless you make it happen. Your responsibility is wide-ranging. Wherever you find yourself, your sphere of influence, your capacity to affect events, to make things happen, reaches well beyond the sound of your voice and the reach of your eyes.

I believe agile leadership calls for choosing and owning that sliver of light inside. Practicing The Responsibility Process goes a long way toward shining the light in self and others.

Better decision-making and problem-solving

Taking ownership puts you in a position to be proactive in recognizing, generating, and choosing options. Agilists who practice The Responsibility Process report experiencing greater clarity and choice around their decisions.

No problem gets solved until someone takes ownership. In the coping states, we seldom recognize and address the real problem. People who practice responsibility know that they get to either own the problem or own the consequences.

Better decision-making and problem-solving translates to faster experimentation, learning, correcting, and taking effective action.

Thriving in change


Agility is the ability to change without changing. That is, the ability to change what you are doing without changing who you are and what you stand for. This is an issue of focus, a Scrum value. In the mental state of responsibility change is natural and easy; in all the coping states below the line change is resisted. Practicing responsibility via The Responsibility Process means practicing change and responsiveness rather than rigidity and resistance.

Appreciating feedback and reflection

Many teams execute work while altering or glossing over the built-in opportunities for feedback and learning. Some of the best applications of The Responsibility Process are with agile leaders and coaches who facilitate the team to truly own feedback, reflection, and learning dynamics.

Here’s one example, a blog post by Tim Schraepen offering some guideposts about using The Responsibility Process in a retrospective.


The call to practice

Agility, and especially agile leadership, calls for acting from the creative, free, and powerful mind rather than the reactive mind, to respond and adapt to each moment in our life and business. The Responsibility Process offers you a tool that’s already inside of you, a tool to activate and grow your own innate leadership ability, then help others discover it too.

Knowing about The Responsibility Process is fun and inspiring, however knowing about it is not enough. The Responsibility Process only works for you when put into practice. How to start? Download a full-color PDF poster of The Responsibility Process, available in twenty-seven languages. Print it and post it where you can see it often. Then start noticing your own mental states. Find a colleague, or two or three, who will study and apply it with you. Share this article with people you care about and start a discussion. When you are ready to dig deeper, there are lots of resources available to support you.

It will change your life.

Thank you for reading this. I welcome your comments and questions. I’m sure there are connections I missed or didn’t explain as well as I could. And I bet others can offer different perspectives.


Christopher Avery headshot

Christopher Avery, “The Responsibility Process guy”, founded The Leadership Gift™ Program to make world-class personal leadership development accessible to individuals worldwide. His books include The Responsibility Process and Teamwork Is An Individual Skill.


Posted in Responsibility on 03/12/2017 12:15 am
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