Why things don’t get done

In the work I do, I often see a dark side to organizations and relationships that have collaboration and being nice as values. It can easily become a smokescreen behind which people avoid accountability and clarity.

I have noticed a tendency for people to spend a lot of time in high-energy meetings and discussions, and a high resistance at the end of those meetings and discussions to clarify—“Do I have the next action on this, or do you?” or “Whose is this now, to make happen?”

This lack of declaring an owner for the action, outcome, or area of focus is why at home many couples and families have huge stacks of papers and “stuff” on the counter between the kitchen and the dining room, by the phone, and in the front hall, and why a lot of personal projects are “stuck.” No in-trays. No immediate physical, visible distinction as to who actually has the next action or decision about this bill, this brochure, this note from the teacher. Everybody sort of feels responsible for it, but no one really owns it. So it doesn’t happen.

It is fascinating that whenever two or more are responsible for something, usually nobody is.

Managers, executives, and parents would all love to have staff and their teams and their families all work together in harmonious flow toward the group goals, with everyone keeping their eye on everything that needs doing, and making sure it gets done. But if responsibility has not been allocated to one person for a particular outcome, the responsibility travels up the ladder until it lands with the one someone who will have to make it happen. That is usually why small companies moving from mom-pop to senior team management often have stress at the top—learning how to effectively chunk off definable areas of responsibility so the owners can stop getting nickel-and-dime’d with details from below.

The exception to this is the rare occasion when literally all the players are equally and independently committed to making something happen, whether anyone else does it or not. This I’ll-do-it-if-it-needs-doing-and-nobody-else-is-doing-it mentality is seen from time to time in small combat teams, highly charged athletic teams, and occasionally project teams super-galvanized to dynamic successful (or survival) outcomes.

There needs to be at least one person who has accountability by assignation or default for bringing something to the finish line. Being nice and not deciding who it is, is not really nice at all.

–David Allen

This essay appeared in David Allen’s Productive Living Newsletter. Subscribe for free here.

Join the Conversation


  1. I tried to sign up for your newsletter but the multiple “identifys” sent to me was too much. Really, I am not a robot.

    1. Hi Joanne, I’m very sorry about that extra step. It’s a “feature” (requirement) in the MailChimp list management software.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.