The word accountability has had disciplinary connotations for many people. I have a variety of good stories about getting caught doing things I should not have done from growing up. I thought I was clever [but was not] and my parents were very consistent with their follow through. However, accountability is a potentially positive thing, and this writeup is an exploration of that idea.
Core Elements of Accountability
To account for the things that need to be done for success in various situations, the following elements are worth considering so that people can be held accountable for tasks:
1) An understood clear objective
2) A generally understood means of execution
3) An understood and agreed upon Deadline
4) Clearly understood benefits of success and/or consequences of failure
5) A review of completed work
The fifth element is key because when something succeeds it should be celebrated, and when it fails we need to be able to review which of the first 4 elements was missing or misunderstood. It’s the accounting of accountability.
Clarity of Objective
Knowing the objective of a task is of utmost importance. We need to be able to understand in detail what is being asked of all parties. Often the critical piece missing from this step will create major issues for the next two elements. The problem could be a gap in expectations because the objective was not clear. If you point up into the Colorado Rockies and say to a friend, “Let’s go hike that mountain off in the horizon,” It will be hard for your friend to know which mountain you’re referring to. However, if you say, “Let’s go hike Mount Evans,” your mate will have half a chance to understand clearly what is expected. The clear objective should be understood and possible.
Clarity of Path
It’s easy to imagine the impossible, state it in clear and understandable language, and then have no way to arrive at the impossible objective. I can say, “Let’s create a self driving hyperloop vehicle that can be turned invisible,” however, there is no clear path to achievability despite the clarity of the goal. Those leading projects should very carefully look for these sorts of tasks and avoid them with diligence.
Once a clear goal is understood those involved in the task need to have a solid outline of how the goal will be achieved. This should be reviewed carefully, moving between the means of execution and the deadline. If participants cannot come up with a plan for a schedule tied to an understood means of execution that seems agreeable, reasonable, and probable then the objective should be revisited or the deadline should be evaluated. One of the worst things teams can do is understand the objective, but not have an agreed upon solution so that success seems highly likely.
Exceptions to this come with experience and the type of task. For example we might have a team of experienced engineers doing some innovative work that is hard to plan for. However, if it is easy to observe that there is no clear path through towards the goal this might be a red flag that should keep us from proceeding without more research.
Clarity of Timeline
After creating a situation where the goal and execution are agreed upon, the deadline should also be agreed upon. How many times have you been approached after a deadline is given where someone wants to move it up by a week? How many times have you agreed upon an outcome without a deadline? Both of these situations are sub-optimal and create a harmful environment for those doing the work, those expecting the work, and accountability will be difficult to have because agreements were either broken or not made at all. I once spoke to someone about a project they wanted rushed through for an already scheduled demo. However, the clarity of the goal was not provided first, the only element that was agreed upon was when the demo of the product was to be ready. That’s high risk.
Clarity of Benefit and Consequence
Take time to go over both positive and negative consequences of success and failure. Positive consequences may be bonuses, continued employment, a big customer deal, and the negatives may be a release from a position, or a lack of a bonus. Don’t be unclear on this, but don’t make it a threat. The purpose of accountability is not fear, the purpose of accountability is confidence, clarity and deliverability. Once the consequences are outlined review the goal, the means and the timeframe so that all parties are prepared for the consequences and can sign off on them ahead. There should be no blindsiding of consequences if at all possible (sometimes 3rd parties can do this unexpectedly, but internal parties should never do this).
Clarity of Achievement
Lastly the retrospective, or post mortem, should be done to discuss what was delivered, what was learned, what could be done better next time, and a celebration of benefits or facing of consequences.
Single projects that do not have a guaranteed “next time” will still benefit from this because all parties will get a chance to learn from the experience. It is not uncommon for R&D projects to be canceled, but leadership will still be able to learn about what happened during the steps of the process. The post mortem also allows for failures to be called out. Because the clarity of the first 3 parts were given participants can be held accountable.
This review time should also be a place for contextual grace. If it is discovered that there were unclear expectations or a delegate or direct report is new to the principles above then grace may be the right response. This grace should be shown in context and all learnings discussions should be reiterated. As was said by Dr. Henry Cloud, “A fool has patterns, a Wiseman has a problem.”
Outside risks may also be a condition for leniency when an unexpected interruption of higher critical importance comes, or third parties do not deliver. These are still opportunities for growth and learning.
Proper accountability will actually be properly enabling. When all of the elements above are clear then all parties can move with more confidence. Sure, negative consequences may be possible, but positive outcomes are the goal.