The key to making people accountable

Maxim #35
Shared accountability is no accountability

maxim_35“Accountability” has a somewhat legalistic, almost sinister feel to it. It can be defined as “the state of being accountable; liability to be called on to render an account”. It is often synonymous with “responsibility” but that word doesn’t carry the same weight. Accountability is what most CEO’s want in their organization, but in our work with companies we’re never quite sure if anyone else below them is so keen on the concept. The simple explanation for this is that the CEO is at the top of the pyramid and no one else can be logically accountable for the results of the organization. People below the CEO play a role and have their responsibilities but they are invariably dependent to some degree on the actions of others in the pyramid.

On projects we often refer to this as the “x factor.” This is when performance of a particular department that is below plan is blamed in whole or in part on things that are “eXternal” to the department. Sales don’t get enough leads, engineering is fed incorrect design specs, production can’t get parts from suppliers, etc. We’ve used manufacturing here as an example but we see the same story in hotels, insurance companies, and hospitals. The X factor makes it difficult to create true accountability. (Just as an aside, when we do any detailed analysis we often find the “x factor” is both more controllable and has less impact than most managers think).

Organizations sometimes try to circumvent this lack of accountability by pretending you can have “shared accountability.” Unfortunately, this frequently waters down individual accountability so much that you end up with no accountability at all. Sharing accountability only makes it easier for everyone to handle failure.

For accountability to work, which is necessary if you want to manage performance, people must be truly accountable for at least what they can actually manage. Also, accountability must rest with one person, not a group and certainly not a committee. Therefore the measures and control systems put in place must be carefully thought through to allow this to happen.