Personal Accountability and the Pursuit of a Boring Culture

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In QBQ! The Question Behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life, author John Miller offers a simple framework for handling ourselves day-to-day, both at work and in our personal lives.

The Question Behind the Question is built on the observation that our first reactions are often negative, bringing to mind Incorrect Questions (IQs). But if in each moment of decision we can instead discipline ourselves to look behind those initial Incorrect Questions and ask ourselves better ones (QBQs), the questions themselves will lead us to better results

The QBQ framework follows these three rules:

1. Begin with “What” or “How” (not “Why,” “When,” or “Who”).
2. Contain an “I” (not “they,” “we,” or “you”).
3. Focus on action.

This is a quick, skinny book that shouldn’t take more than an hour to get through. I think its strength is in its easy-to-remember format. Incorrect Questions (IQs) are bad. QBQs are what we need to ask.

While reading, I found myself thinking about all the IQs that I’ve said myself or heard from various people over the years. Things like:

  • Who screwed up on that assignment?
  • When will we finally hire someone who can do this right?
  • When will so-and-so ever learn how to do it correctly?
  • Why isn’t so-and-so coming up with the right solutions?
  • Why aren’t you setting us up for success?
  • Why is so-and-so so disorganized?
  • Why is the client so demanding?
  • Why don’t our projects have a big enough budget?
  • Why don’t we have enough time to finish our projects?
  • Why do I have to do all the thinking?
  • Why do I have to make all the hard decisions?

In the context of my work and being a manager, I came away with some thoughts for how QBQs can better guide my decisions:

Focus on myself and model the behavior I want to see.

Avoid IQs like the plague and handle all types of situations with a “what can I do” attitude. Teach through actions. By being consistent in my behavior day-in and day-out, I’m helping to establish cultural norms and expectations. It’s also worth noting that in the book, Miller is insistent that we can’t change other people. Years of managing employees has taught me that this is true. People change of their own accord, so rather than waste our energies trying to change someone else, it’s more productive to focus on ourselves.

Maintain a team that asks the right questions.

I feel fortunate to have a team at Barrel right now that subscribes to a high degree of personal responsibility and defaults to the QBQ framework. However, a series of wrong hires can undo the culture in a hurry. It’ll be of paramount importance to hire correctly and, if necessary, fire those who can’t get on board. The latter has to be done swiftly and without hesitation.

Remember that stress is a choice.

A disgruntled employee, an unhappy client, some kind of problem with finances or the office – all kinds of issues can pop up at anytime, but I always have a choice in how I deal with them. I can wallow in self-pity and blame external factors or I can just tell myself that things happen and ask what I can do to productively handle the situation.

The Pursuit of Boring

When I watch TV shows that depict the workplace, whether it’s a startup, a hedge fund, a law firm, a police station, or a warring tribe, it’s striking how often I’ll hear Incorrect Questions bandied about by the characters. Questions like “Who fucked up?” or “Why is this happening to us?” are commonplace. And it’s no wonder – these types of questions make for good drama. It introduces conflict and pits characters against each other. It’s what makes shows entertaining and interesting, the opposite of boring.

This is why I think boring is sexy, especially when it comes to the workplace. Boring means we’re focused on the work. Boring means we’ve got a process that we follow, repeat, and tweak without a fuss. Boring means we deliver for our clients. Boring means we hire good people, pay them well, and keep them productive. There’s no intrigue, there are no politics, and there’s nobody trying to undermine someone else. It’s just a team, showing up for work, putting in a strong effort, and going home.

Staying boring takes work, and I intend to continue my mission of keeping Barrel as boring as possible. I’ll end with a quote from Miller’s book which echoes a similar sentiment:

In seeking to practice personal accountability, we have to avoid the trap of thinking we’ve “arrived.” Personal accountability is not a destination. We don’t wake up one morning and suddenly find ourselves an “accountable person” forever more. Rather, it’s a daily, moment-to-moment practice of avoiding the Incorrect Questions and asking QBQs instead. I’m not a finished product. Are you?

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