Tuesday, December 5, 2023

On being accountable

Are you accountable?
Most of us want to answer 'yes, of course!'; how could it be otherwise? 
Most of us would endorse these ideas:
I'm always accountable for what I do. 
I'm accountable for that which I am responsible.
(Subtext: this can only be true if my personal integrity does not allow me to push blame on to others for failures and missteps, or claim false credit for what others actually did)
Accountability attaches credit and blame.
In popular culture, it seems to be more about attaching blame: A common refrain: "Who's to be held accountable for this!?"

Actually, being accountable means accepting blame or consequences when valid, but also stepping up and accepting accolades when earned.

I like this from Henry Evans, the author of Winning with Accountability, who says accountability is “clear commitments that in the eyes of others have been kept.”

Evans has set the frame: the final judgment about accountability is with others
In this sense, the concept of personal accountability is somewhat of an "earned value" idea: 
  • You have a 'planned' set of responsibilities to get things done.
  • You 'earn' accolades or consequences as you account for your actions
  • Others judge the earnings and apply the credit or debit
Thus, in all schemes of accountability, you have a part to play: It's on you to commit to your responsibilities. So, even though Evans' statement is not explicit about being responsible, the holistic idea of accountability stemming from commitment embraces responsibility.

But what I don't like about Evans' statement is that it could be interpreted as requiring 'achievement' (in the sense of a commitment kept) when, of course successful achievement is not a requirement for accountability. Only a commitment to execute responsibly is.

And so in the context I've laid out it's common to encounter these questions:
  • What is accountability, or what is it to be accountable?
  • Can there be accountability without responsibility?
  • Can there be responsibility without accountability?
  • Are you given accountability, or do you grab it and take it on?
  • Is the apex of the pyramid always accountable for anything down in the pyramid? (See: Captain of the ship is accountable ..... )
I don't want to dig too much more deeply into the psychology of 'accountability', and realistically that would be a fools' errand because project and business culture drive a lot of the answers to the questions above.

So, without making a big thing out of the answers, I'll offer my thinking here:
  • As Evans puts it, accountability is about taking personal responsibility for outcomes: "I got this!" "I'm the one you can count on to get it done" "I will be there to see it through". All statements of commitment.
    And with Tom Petty in mind: "I won't back down!".

  • The accountability/responsibility questions are ageless; they've been around since forever! The usual answer is: 'If you want me to be accountable for outcomes, then give me the responsibility for plans and resources. If you crater my plan and matrix out my resources, then you're accountable and not me!

  • If you're not the apex (most senior executive) of the pyramid, you might be 'assigned' accountability: 'This is your mission and no one else's;  go get it done, and tell me when you're finished'.

    Actually, if you're low to mid in the pyramid, there's probably a backup to you. If it's a big pyramid, you may be an interchangeable cog in the mechanism. Nonetheless, grab it and go!

  • Most of time, 'seniors' are always happy to have accountability 'grabbers' in the mix. It makes it easier to allocate the mission requirements. And, you may quickly earn and retain the leadership label.

    But the 'grabbers' are sometimes seen as more interested in climbing the ladder than actually advancing the mission. So, some balance of eagerness and opportunity is required.

  • Traditionally, the 'apex' is accountable for the performance of everything done in the name of the pyramid. This is accountability without personal responsibility for outcomes. The "commitment" embedded in the concept of accountability is interpreted as 'committed to ensuring a responsible person is found, assigned, and expectations for outcomes established".

    In the military particularly, and certainly on ships at sea, this idea is deep culture.

    But, that idea often gets lost. One chief executive famously said that success has many fathers, but a failure is an orphan.

    Worse is the chief executive who denies accountability for all but successes. That is morally corrupt and a morale killer.

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