Diminishing Marginal Responsibility – Why Growing Your Team Is Destroying Your Brand

Heather has been doing a lot of leader training recently so we have been talking about the concepts and philosophical notions that being a leader is not the same thing as leading – think title vs. behavior. We agree that a title doesn’t qualify you to lead and that most people who act like a leader do not have titles.

Yesterday at work a package arrived from a big courier company; it is a company that I refuse to use given their track record of damaging everything I have ever shipped with them. It was a shelving unit that wasn’t available in the store and needed to be shipped to us from a warehouse. It weighed 71 lbs.

The courier company still has a perfect record of damage as this shipment has a number of broken pieces, was open and was missing the instructions. It is unusable so it’s getting sent back and will be replaced with another shelf that will be shipped to us using the same company. I envision this process going on forever given their propensity for damaging stuff. But who know, maybe someone with the company will handle the entire process and we’ll get our shelf.

Anyway, I close the box up and am walking into the back of our office / warehouse mindlessly wondering what would have to be true in order for every package shipped with this company to arrive damaged and it dawned on me. No one is taking responsibility for it arriving undamaged. There are simply too many people involved in the process for any one of them to actually care about it in any meaningful way.

There have been times when I have delivered panels to customers myself. In these cases I usually know that I’ll be dropping them off with the customer before I even make the panels. Given that we are a small family run company, I am the only person who has anything to do with the manufacturing. My brother or the website takes the order, gives it to me and I make and deliver it. At most, two people have their hand in the transaction, and one has the hands in the manufacturing of it.

This I believe changes things. Assuming that the order was taken and related correctly, if there is something wrong with the panels when they arrive I am 100% responsible. If they are not closed correctly, I didn’t close them correctly. If they are damaged during shipping, I damaged them. If the client has an issue, it was likely my action or inaction that cased the issue. That is the truth. No one else had anything to do with the process.

Compare this to when we ship with a smaller local company. In this instance, someone comes and picks up the boxes. They bring it to a sorting warehouse were other people or machines move it around and load it onto another truck. A different driver then drives it to the customer and drops it off. In this case, other than me, there are at least 3 other people involved in the shipping. Assuming that I did everything perfectly, three other people need to do everything perfectly for the shipment to arrive in perfect condition. If it does not arrive in perfect condition, at least one person is responsible for the damage. It should not surprise you to learn that every package we has sent using this smaller local company has arrived in perfect condition.

In two instances I have had to visit a customer after an order arrived from a big shipper. I am both pleased and shocked, please to see that the panels are in okay condition, shocked because the boxes are so beaten up. Our panels are of a high quality so it does take a lot to destroy them, but I wouldn’t have imagined just how roughed up the boxes get. When we use a big company, the boxes are bar coded so the workers can scan them or they are scanned automatically by a machine. There are at least 3 people involved in the process, but given the size of the company, I know there are going to be a lot of other people handling the boxes. With any given box, there may be 10 people handling it, I don’t know and am only guessing, but 10 seems reasonable given that they ship 10000 of boxes a day from the GTA. This means that 10 people need to do their job perfectly on order for the shipment to arrive in perfect condition. With any number above 3 or 4, the chances that this is going to happen starts to drop dramatically. In fact, the chances that 2 or more people will do their job poorly increases dramatically as the number of packages increases.

Think about it this way: One person can do a great job with one package. It’s all they have to do so they can really focus on it and they know that there is no one else to blame if things go badly. There is complete accountability so the person has and feels complete responsibility for the outcome. Three people can do a great job with a package BUT if there is an issue with it, the amount of responsibility any one member feels can be less than 100%; it’s easy to share the blame with the other two people. This is, in my experience, less likely because 3 is a small number so tracking the source of issues is very easy. As the size of the team grows tracking down issues creates an increasing challenge and, given that people figure this out, each person is able to feel less responsible for the outcome.

Phrased more succinctly there is diminishing marginal responsibility for the outcome – with each additional person added to a process, the level of responsibility that each person in the process feels decreases. In the case of my least favorite shipping company, it has grown to be so large that no one who handles my shipments feels any responsibility for the outcome (this may be too highly stated but I have NEVER received a preemptive call from them to let me know that there has been a problem and that they are going to work hard to fix it).

A company can grow to be so big that there are no leaders in it any more, and the service / quality of their products begins to deteriorate. When owners fail to act like leaders, choosing to leverage the title of leader instead, their brand starts to free-fall and client and worker churn grow to very high levels.