Fingers pointing at each other

The bad kind of SEP

I remember when I first heard the acronym SEP. It was way back in the dawn of my career, and a grizzled old contractor was talking about some aspect of a project.

“The flurbuz is janky. Welp, SEP.” – him

“What does that mean” – me

“It’s ‘Someone Else’s Problem’ now.” – him

“Oh.” – me

It has stuck with me all my career, but as I think about it a bit more deeply, I realized that there are two different kinds of SEP declarations–one good and one bad.

The bad type of SEP is when a problem doesn’t have an owner and everyone is ducking it. You know, that architectural original sin no one wants to face, or the client who is late but no one wants to cut off. If everyone is saying SEP, then the problem will never be solved. No good. The remedy here (in small cos, at least) is often to have everything “fall up” to the CEO. She can be the utility player who owns everything not otherwise assigned. Of course, tackling all of these orphan problems can prevent her from focusing on her main job, but at least she has the clout to make the problem someone else’s if need be.

The good version of SEP is also known as delegation. This means you’ve handed off the problem to someone else, whether on your team, an external contractor, or a client who wants to take some part of a project in house . And when you say SEP, you are trusting them to take care of the issue. This allows you to focus on other tasks. It does require you to trust that they can do what was agreed to. (They did agree to it before it became their problem, right? If not, this may be an example of the bad type of SEP, or at a minimum a chance for a ball to be dropped.)

For me personally, delegation is a skill I struggle with, even though allows me to be more effective. So saying “SEP” and letting the other party own it is a great way for me to practice that skill.

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