Welcome the Hydra

Hercules underwent twelve labors, and his second labor was iconic: slaying the Lernaean Hydra. A reptilian creature with twelve venom-spewing heads preyed upon nearby villagers, and any attempt to kill the beast only made it grow stronger, for slicing off one head made two new heads grow in its place. More heads meant more appetite, more appetite meant more growth, and more growth meant more venom, so no man who fought the beast lived to tell the tale.

The Accountability Hydra

In a less epic context, a sociological monster preys upon knowledge workers: The Accountability Hydra. The beast emerges when an issue arises, often a small nuisance that rapidly grows into a menace.

Knowledge work environments are complex systems with dispersed knowledge and ownership, so groups tend to play accountability hot potato. If a software application breaks, nobody wants to be caught holding the hot potato, so they quickly toss the blame on someone else—the developer who pushed a change, the manager who pressured folks to forgo testing, or the user who pressed the wrong button.

The Accountability Hydra feasts upon these potatoes.

The monster smells the potato and quickly consumes the accountability nobody wants. It grows larger with each accusation, and this cycle of blame wreaks havoc upon a team’s culture. The cascading effect of no ownership causes everyone to feel shame and anger and become defensive, hoping the Hydra will feed upon someone else instead.

Blame passing ruins psychological safety because people fear the heads that’ll snap at them and the stain of failure upon their reputations. They are bystanders at best and blame-casters at worst, but they unwittingly exacerbate the problem through avoidance.

When a problem has grown this bad from a vacuum of ownership, a hero must rise.

The Directly Responsible Individual

Being a hero sounds glamorous, but it won’t feel like it. To defeat the Accountability Hydra, one must shoulder responsibility for the failure and become the Directly Responsible Individual (DRI). They’ll face backlash from colleagues, get lectures from leadership, and, depending on the issue’s severity, take a hit to their reputation. But unlike the Hydra, the DRI will have one neck to choke.

That’s the price of ownership.

Diagnosing accountability problems can feel like a Herculean effort. We focus on one person to discover a team has missed the mark. But maybe that team is subject to processes that set them up for failure—deepening the problem.

Each chopped head grows two more, and each failure point reveals another tangle of failure points. So, we must first understand how big the problem is.

Start with an objective search for the truth. Catalog everything in a retrospective document: recreate the timeline, answer the five whys, and quantify the impact. Ask questions of the people involved to depict the problem accurately.

After each decapitation from Hercules, his nephew Iolaus cauterized the Hydra’s neck with a torch to prevent more heads from sprouting. Similarly, once we understand the small issues that led to the big problem, we should address them individually. For each, assign one individual a clear action item and give them a specific date to complete it.

Overcome the bystander effect by pointing to one person in a crowd and assigning them a task. The direct request makes the person feel directly responsible.

When each item is assigned an owner and a date, we sear the issue. After completing each action, we defeat the Hydra.

The Antifragile Opportunity

To prevent future Hydras, create a culture of ownership. One way is to assign DRIs to key projects so there’s always a “hero” appointed to jump in when something goes wrong. This person should understand the role’s responsibility to know the goals, status, and key components better than anyone else.

But DRIs will not work unless they have psychological safety. The model will collapse if they fear the repercussions of failure—like retaliation or personal criticism. They’ll cover up risks and little setbacks, creating the space for Hydras to grow.

No matter how careful we are, problems are bound to arise. Rather than avoiding problems, we can cultivate a mindset to rebound from them.

Sun Tzu advises us to know our enemies better than they know themselves. The best way to defeat a Hydra, other than hacking and burning its heads, is to adopt the principle that makes them so strong: antifragility.

The Hydra thrives off adversity and pain, for it does not mourn the loss of a severed head but seizes the opportunity to grow two more. Likewise, we can turn issues into opportunities.

People love stories of a hero defeating a monster, overcoming a low to reach a high. The “hero’s journey” of the Hercules myth is still relevant today, so take advantage of this plotline!

When something goes wrong—and it inevitably will—own it and over-deliver on the resolution. Nobody remembers efforts to maintain the status quo. But if we fail and recover with vigor, we’ll stand out as a hero overcoming a monster.

It’s like a game:

  • Never create a problem: 0 points.
  • Create a problem: -5 points.
  • Solve the problem: +2 points.
  • Overdeliver on the solution: +10 points.

Don’t avoid problems; seize them as opportunities.