Some ideas simply click with you. I remember reading about “the alignment of authority and responsibility” for the first time and feeling how much that idea resonated with me.1 I worked at IBM at the time, on the (then) Net.Commerce project, and after about a year, I began to feel some responsibility for delivering on a project plan without any authority to negotiate scope, priorities, or timing with a stakeholder. I remember clearly staring at a whiteboard that waited for me to put work estimates next to a long list of tasks. I refused to do it.

“I don’t know long it will take,” I told my manager.

“Forget about getting the numbers right. Just give me something to put in the plan.” I knew he supported me, but he needed me to understand the difficulty in his position. He felt a similar powerlessness and asked me to help him work through it. I felt quite sad about it. While his response didn’t help me in the short term, but it opened my eyes to what I now know to call Schedule Chicken. I felt truly powerless in having to make a commitment to a schedule in which I did not believe.

I had had project managers hold me to rough estimates in the past. I had read about the “best practice” called No Hallway Estimates. I felt that Management (that nebulous machine that doesn’t really exist) foisted responsibility on me without the authority I needed to accept and deliver on that responsibility.

I had had enough. I started walking up and down the halls, asking, “Why do you make me guess? I always guess wrong.” Within two years, I left IBM with serious Authority Deficit Disorder. If you find yourself in a position of having to manage people with low authority and high responsibility, then you need to know the Law of Conservation of Authority and Responsibility.

People will correct an imbalance of authority and responsibility, whether you want them to or not, and on their schedule, not yours.

Consider the case of Jane, who has spent two years suffering from Authority Deficit Disorder. If you don’t give her more authority, then she will reach her breaking point, disrupt your organization, and eventually leave. Unfortunately, if you decide to give her more authority, then she will spend about two years demanding authority without responsibility, just to compensate for her two years of Authority Deficit Disorder. She will demand it. Either way, Jane will disrupt your organization, your plans, and probably your life. You will suffer, whether you deserve it or don’t.

So the Law of Conservation of Authority and Responsibility has a corollary.

When a person suffering from Authority Deficit Disorder has reached his breaking point, nothing you do can remedy the situation, except to wait.

Jane spent two years suffering, so she probably needs two years to recover. I understand how powerless and unfair that is, but I don’t find it any less unfair than the treatment Jane endured. This leads me to conclude

When you withhold authority, but insist on responsible behavior, everyone loses.

I don’t know how to solve that problem without simply balancing authority and responsibility better.

  1. I haven’t read it, but found at least one reference to this idea in Harry Chambers and Robert Craft’s No Fear Management.↩︎