A man was flying in a hot air balloon and realized he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a woman down below. He lowered the balloon further and shouted, “Excuse me, can you tell me where I am?”

The woman below said, “Yes, you’re in a hot air balloon, hovering 30 feet above this field.”

“You must be an consultant,” replied the balloonist.

“I am,” said the woman. “How did you know?”

“Well,” the balloonist said, “everything you have told me is technically correct, but it’s of absolutely no use to me.”

The woman below said, “You must be in management.”

“I am,” replied the balloonist, “but how did you know?”

“Well,” said the woman, “you don’t know where you are, you don’t know how to get to where you’re going; you’re in the same position you were in before we met … but now it’s my fault.”

[Author unknown, but greatly appreciated!  If you or anyone you know has a proprietary interest in this story please authenticate and I will be happy to credit, or remove, as appropriate.]

All of us that work in organizations can relate to this story in some way, no?  We all have jobs that are really split roles — on some tasks and issues, we are decision-makers and have some power over what we do, and if we’re project leaders or managers, what others do.  On other tasks and issues, we don’t have that kind of “position” power; we instead are largely advisors providing counsel, suggestions, opinion, and support.  Certainly, some roles are predominantly decision-makers, while others, predominantly support; but all contain an element of both.

Throughout my career I have come to realize two things in this arena — one, that knowing what role you are in vis-à-vis the task or issue is really important to being effective ( a topic for another day’s blog post), and two, that there is a specific challenge for each role in order to be and stay effective.

When We Do Have the Power.   The challenge for us when we in fact do control the choices is simple and straightforward:  we must retain responsibility, regardless of the counsel we receive!

The baloonist is responsible for being 30 feet above the woman’s field, and lost.  No advice or counsel, no matter how good or bad, changes that fact.  Placing blame elsewhere may make him feel better in the moment, but of course does no good.

And When We Don’t Have the Power?  The challenge for us when we are providing counsel, advise, and support, is this: in addition to our support being right, it’s important to also be helpful!

The woman on the ground giving the information to the helplessly lost balloonist was right.  She was clearly not helpful…

It is not good enough to have a factually correct — or even a well-reasoned and sound — answer.  A right answer actually helps get the task done with quality and/or speed, or to resolve the issue satisfactorily.  This means that, ultimately, who we are providing our “right answer” to is the judge of whether it was right or not, because they are squarely in the position to ascertain the degree to which the answer was helpful…

The first challenge is all about being accountable.  The second one is too!

Many years ago I learned that responsibility is essentially the ability to respond.  Response-ability.  As a decision-maker, when we have power, we own the action of responding.  When we don’t have power; when we are advising and supporting; we own the action of helping the decision-maker respond.

I don’t think a week goes by that I don’t either explicitly speak to this point in my professional interactions, or I recognize the relevance implicit in discussions in project meetings, planning meetings, and associate interactions.  “Well, you are certainly right, but do you expect that approach to be helpful?” almost always elicits a pause, some quick reflection, and an adjustment…

Be accountable.  Be right.  And be helpful!