I have recently become fascinated with the world of Cryptocurrencies and Blockchains. In it’s simplest form, cryptocurrency is an encrypted digital currency, transferred peer to peer and managed by a decentralised public ledger (a blockchain), without the need for a central institution, e.g. a bank. The most well known cryptocurrency is Bitcoin. “Speak English’ I hear you cry! I hear you, I'm still baffled by it on a daily basis but nevertheless, it has captured my imagination.
More recently I explored how transactions work in this world and was intrigued by the unfamiliar and confronting rules by which it is governed.
When the penny dropped.
Let me elaborate. To purchase a cryptocurrency, for example Bitcoin, you must create a wallet to store them on, much like physical cash. This can either be a soft wallet which is virtual (e.g. mobile or web application etc), or a hard wallet being a physical manifestation (e.g. paper certificates). Now here is the interesting part! A unique identifier is produced when creating a soft wallet, for your eyes only. It acts like keys to a safe. If at any point you can’t access the wallet application and need to log on from another device, you will need this code. If you lose or forget the code, there is absolutely no way to access your wallet. There is no back up code held by the wallet supplier, no passcode reset, nothing. Your cryptocurrency is lost forever, goneski!
My initial reaction to this was one of disbelief and a little anger. Who do they think they are?! That’s a little extreme isn’t it? We are human beings and mistakes happen! If my monthly password resets are any indication, I don’t stand a chance in this world. Very quickly however, my frustration turned to intrigue. All I could think about was how I was going to make sure I protect that code. ‘This is sheer brilliance’ I thought! I am totally accountable for the outcome. The buck stops with me in the truest sense. I noticed the subsequent impact it had on my behaviour was immediate and definitive.
Unintended consequences when trying to empower your people (or children!).
A common narrative I hear when working with clients is their struggle to empower their people in a way that encourages them to Take Ownership and Personal Accountability. “We’ve tried to empower our people but they just don’t take ownership” I hear... sound familiar?
When developing a new behaviour or changing an existing one, there is a cause and effect equation at play. The cause is ones’ motivation. Whether it be personal, social or otherwise, there is generally some motivation driving a particular behaviour. The effect is the consequence of that behaviour. What happens afterwards that either reinforces or contradicts it.
In the case of cryptocurrency there is a strong motivation (cause) to keep it accessible and safe knowing there is no safety net if the code is lost (effect). The responsibility lies squarely with the individual and the resulting behaviour is inspired by a strong sense of ownership and responsibility to keep the code secure.
Children are a great case study. As many parents, aunties, uncles and teachers would know, they are notorious for mistreating their things. I have a pretty amazing 13 year old step son and two adorable nieces whom are 6 and 3. My stepson has lost a number of jackets over the years by leaving them behind somewhere, and I can’t remember the number of toys I have seen maimed at my brothers house! They simply don’t understand the value of the items they possess, and why would they? They are children. It’s our responsibility as adults to teach them isn't it?
“Please take care of your things, money doesn’t grow on trees” parents are heard saying the world over (or maybe that was my parents?!).
Yet when the bike goes missing because it wasn't properly secured, the replacement is right there in it’s place less than a week later - after a stern lecture on the importance of taking care of ones belongings of course!
“They will learn, they’re a good kid and I’ve told them not to do it again”.. right?
However, if the consequence is a bit of an ear bashing followed by a new version of whatever was mistreated, where is the motivation to change the behaviour? There isn't one. The effect needs to shift in order to change the motivation. My stepson recently broke his iPhone screen and was devastated. He then took us all by surprise by offering to pay for it out of his savings. Somewhere along the lines the ‘effect’ sank in and reinforced the right behaviour. *Blush*, proud parent moment!
I’ve seen it play out in many organisations as well. The risk framework in the financial services industry is a classic case. What motivation is there to get it right upfront when there is a 1st, 2nd and yes.. a 3rd line of defense behind you ready to pick up any of your mistakes? True accountability is moved up the chain, hence taking responsibility away from the front line and reinforcing undesired behaviours, not to mention the added cost and inefficiency.
Some key ingredients to creating a culture of ownership and accountability.
Setting clear expectations and boundaries upfront, removing safety nets where possible, fostering a learning (vs blame) environment when it goes wrong, and giving true accountability where it belongs will go a long way to engender a culture of empowerment and true ownership.
As Tim Ferriss beautifully articulated in one of my favourite books ‘Tools for Titans’… “People’s IQs seem to double as soon as you give them responsibility and indicate that you trust them.”
My stepson stepped up to the plate, you never know, your employees may do the same!