Monday, June 18, 2007

Are you a bystander?

At lunch today I was reminded of the story of Kitty Genovese. If you're not familiar with the story, or the social phenomena that's named after it -- it's intriguing, relevant and disturbing.

Kitty Genovese was a young woman who was murdered in Queens, NY in 1964. As she was walking to her apartment late one evening she was approached by her attacker, Winston Mosely. Winston Mosely stabbed her twice in the back and her screams awoke her neighbors. A dozen people watched as she was attacked. The attacker left briefly and she struggled into an apartment building. The attacker soon returned and dealt her death blow.

Her case is upheld as the pre-eminent example of the bystander effect. The effect basically observes that a lone individual will usually intervene when another person needs help. However, if there are multiple people present; people are much less likely to intervene. Each bystander assumes that someone else will intervene. It's a classic case of diffusion of responsibility.

Well this effect was in full force today while I was eating lunch at a local Cuban restaurant. Outside of the window -- a mid 40's female and a mid 30's male were dealing drugs. The female would approach a stopped car, take money and then the male would make the hand off to the customer. This was in the middle of the afternoon in front of a busy intersection. Multiple people noticed the event, but nobody reacted. They observed, said they couldn't believe that they were being so obvious in broad daylight and walked out the door of the restaurant. So I called and reported the activity to the police (it's my neighborhood).

But, this effect doesn't only apply to neighborhood watches. Think about your business. How many projects are enacted without clear project ownership and accountability? How many times do executives pass down general mandates without specifying a project owner, objectives, timeline or next steps? It's often harmless and seems like a small project to the person initiating. "Let's create new landing pages", or "Let's revise our sales script." But the reality is that the project will stall until someone takes a commanding leadership role. This is because each team member assumes that someone else is handling it, communication falls apart and all your left with is shared accountability. And shared accountability means no one will take the blame. Each person will rationalize that they thought the other person was taking the lead. This is also why large project teams become highly in-efficient without experienced and seasoned leadership coordinating the multitude of parts.

So before you accept, or delegate your next project; make sure that your project team has a leader and not just a bunch of bystanders.

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