One sunny day in the mid-60’s prof. Robert Rosenthal and school principle Lenore Jacobson went into a classroom of an elementary school in San Francisco to deliver to the teachers the scientific insights into how some of the students would perform that year. They indicated the students who would “bloom” and could be expected to improve greatly. So the year has passed and indeed these students significantly outperformed others in the group. Amazing! Rosenthal and Jacobson must have been psychics, because, truth to be told, they made it all up.
Yes, they indicated the kids at random, without any supporting data. Rosenthal – a renown (social) psychology professor – understood the powers that govern our perception of self and that of the others. He also understood that, if put in motion, those can lead to self-fulfilling prophecy come true. And so he came up with the Pygmalion effect.
Pygmalion effect assumes that a prophecy of someone’s action can be fulfilled with a single assured statement to others that a given person will do something. Of course the authority figure, fake data, etc. helps to strengthen the perception that this statement is true, whether or not it is. Rosenthal told the teachers that some students will perform way better than others. They believed him. After all, he’s a professor of psychology. What happened next was that teachers’ expectations towards those students prompted them to take action to assure that it was the truth. And so they gave the ‘chosen ones’ more attention, which in turn made the students believe they were special, which in turn made them work harder to not disappoint the teachers who believed and helped them so much. Wow!
Here’s how it would look like in a nerdy representation:
Powerful, right? You’re probably wondering – if you can label someone to achieve a positive outcome, can you turn it around to a negative one?
Definitely yes. This is called a Golem effect. And what is more, the negative effects are so destructive that at some point experiments like that have been forbidden by psychology society. Till this day in US there are people who have been labeled as bad students and that has immensely influenced their life. But you don’t have to look to specific research. A problem of race and sexism is only strengthen when people start to behave the way they’re expected to, because others expect them to, not because they would on their own – prejudice plays a big role in self-fulfilling prophecies.
RASCI – the silent killer
(…) we are a team. And part of being a team is that you have to do
exactly what I tell you! I mean, you know (…), there is no “you” in teamwork!
Michael Kelso (That 70’s show)
I hope you don’t recognize this from your daily work (if you do, stop reading and run!). Still, assigning jobs or tasks to people is a common act of many team leads, managers and ‘bosses’. The moment you assign someone a task or a job, you simply are saying that this person can do this (if the task is challenging and you encourage them – pygmalion effect) or that they are not capable of achieving greater things (if the task is mundane and you treat it like it’s normal – golem effect). You need to be careful about assigning tasks as it’s not only you that is involved or the person you’re assigning to, but also others that are watching and interpreting what has just happen. The perception you create about a person may very well lead to their success or failure beyond their control.
As a matter of fact, assigning jobs and tasks is such vastly used idea, that an optimization of it has been devised to deliver better efficiency in carrying out projects. The name is RASCI. In this model you assign roles to people – basically defining what they are expected to do and what they’re not necessarily expected to do, but the latter one is never explained this way, as it’s implicit that they simply shouldn’t – others will take care of it. Each letter stands for a role and description of it’s responsibility (which term as you will soon learn I use very loosely here).
Imagine that you’re called into a project meeting and the manager comes with RASCI definition and says:
Manager: John, you will be Responsible for this project. You will be the single decision maker. You will be accountable for quality and timelines of the process, agreements, relationships, deliverables and decisions.
John (thinking): Ok, I’m screwed. It’s all on me, so I will make sure that everyone does what I tell them, meet the deadline no matter what. I have the power, I’m going to use it.
What others think?
Other (thinking): Oh nice. He’s accountable, they don’t want me to be responsible, they don’t want to think what I have to say. Fine, I can relax. Whatever.
M: I will be the Approver. I will give the go or no-go decision. John you will be accountable before me.
M (thinking): Nice, if it goes wrong, John is to blame.
O (thinking): Nice, if it goes wrong, John is to blame.
M: Mark, Lacy, Susan (Others) – you will be Supporting John. You will be accountable to John for agreed upon work, timeframe, deliverables and/or resources.
J: I need to make sure that I know exactly what they’re doing and that they’re doing exactly what I tell them. They’re not responsible. I am.
O: Whatever. I’ll do what he tells me.
M: Mary you will be the Consultant. You will provide substantive input and sought by John during decision making before the actions are taken and plans are finalized.
J: Nice, I will have to chase after Mary to get my information.
M: Good luck John. I will be in my office doing other stuff. Just write me an email if you need something.
M: Robert, you will be Informed when we’re done.
R: Ok. What should I cook today?
Have you noticed something? There’s a single decision maker who’s authority has been given to him by the highest paid person in the organization. Also the full responsibility lies on him. What could that mean? Let’s ponder a scenario (which from my experience is really average-case one):
John will treat Mark, Lacy and Susan as workforce. Resources – have you heard that term often? He will do everything to meet the deadlines and make sure that his decisions are carried out. People are here to support his project.
Others will fall back to doing instead of thinking, because it’s not their project. It’s John’s. They’re here to support him, but they are not responsible, so they can take it easy. In the end – who wants to hear what they have to say? They will do just enough to satisfy John’s short term goals. The big picture is his responsibility.
Mary, Robert – they don’t even know what this project is about. People will talk to them if they need. So they can go on and do their own stuff.
The worst thing is I did not come up with this scenario. This is a mix of statements (however cleaned from explicit content) I heard over years when talking to people with different roles in the project. One I heard was really powerful from a person in the S role – “Why should I care?”. And this I have gathered during the run of the project, not the moment of assigning the roles. That only hints at Golem effect – people acting as they are expected by others to act to a negative outcome.
But is RASCI really a problem? Or is it us?
RASCI – the catalyst
The idea behind RASCI’s is to make clear who is doing what, but at the same time it appoints a single role for responsibility and decision making. How can you break out of the Golem effect cycle? Try these steps:
- Ask the team to self-organize around RASCI and ask “who wants to be responsible”, “who will support X”?
- Ask everyone if they want to be accountable. What good is it for you to have a project done by people who don’t believe in it?
- Get rid of C and I and turn them into S – you want people who are committed to the project, who believe in it and want to help. Most of all – you don’t want to be stuck because they’re busy with being C or I on some other project at that very moment you need them. What’s the point of I anyway if that person has no single responsibility in this project. Nice to know? Your whole company should be I at your next demo.
You can still use RASCI (or it’s cousins RASI, CAIRO, DACI, etc.) effectively. What you need is to get rid of assignment of responsibility and let people take responsibility. What if they don’t want to? Then this is actually a great checkpoint for you to ask if people believe in the project or not and start a discussion. Too often we come into meeting rooms being sure that everyone in this room agrees with us and believes in the things we believe. Using RASCI as a conversation tool rather than a whip we can really create efficient and motivated teams.
BTW – If you’re interested on origins of Pygmalion and Golem effect names – simply read about the play “Pygmalion” and about the myth of Golem. You’ll immediately see the connection.