We began to question our own understanding of accountability. We decided to do a little research and “think it through”, and have come to two conclusions. First, no one has a clear, consistent definition of accountability. Many talk a good game, but few have cracked the accountability code. Our second conclusion is that most often the call for more accountability is really an unspoken desire for more consequences (i.e., reward for achievement and punishment for failure).
In this issue we are going discuss what we think about accountability, discuss how it relates to responsibility and give our view of what this all means for you as an employee or manager.
What is Accountability?
When shame-faced politicians, greedy bankers or celebrity executives say “I take complete accountability for my actions” at their mea culpa, please-forgive-me press conferences, we generally accept these types of statements as apologies (even when paired with “voluntary” resignations). Is this how someone is held accountable? Accountability is more than a phrase that is part of a scripted apology. Accountability quite literally is the ability to account for one’s actions.
So now that the high-level definition is out of the way, let’s fully define and lay out the true meaning of the term, starting with what needs to be in place for accountability to exist:
1. Clear Goals Must Be Established: Quantifiable project objectives should be defined, documented and communicated
2. Adequate Resources and Authority Must Be Granted: Sufficient resources (e.g., financial, technical and human), control and influence must be made available.
3. Specific Consequences Must Be Predetermined: Outcomes for success and failure are established, documented and communicated.
If any of the above are not satisfied the employee is well within his or her rights to question the assignment and address the gaps before proceeding. We realize this is a strong statement, but perfectly legitimate if he or she is to be accountable.
Let’s explore each one in a little more detail.
Establishing Clear Goals
Ambiguity regarding desired outcomes for a given project must be eliminated and great care taken to ensure that all involved share the same definition of success. It does not matter who the leader is, projects that begin without a clear, shared picture of the end goal(s) are doomed to failure. Project goals should be Relevant, Realistic and Reportable.
- Relevant – goals are aligned with overarching business objectives
- Realistic – attainable given the known constraints
- Reportable – performance against the key success metric(s) can be objectively quantified and communicated.
Often when dealing with clients we get push back on the “reportable” requirement. Several reasons for not measuring and reporting progress and success are offered including “success will be self evident”, “it is too difficult to measure”, “we don’t have the resources or ability” or, our personal favorite, “it can’t be measured”. In such cases, we explain that the goals, whether intermediate or final, are required to keep everyone on track throughout the project and to allow for course correction as necessary. Clear reportable goals are not a luxury, rather they are a necessity. In effect, we require that the “count” is included in accountability.
Granting Adequate Resources and Authority
It sounds absurd for a manager to demand an action from an employee and at the same time prevent the employee from performing the action. Unfortunately, managers frequently do this, often without even knowing it. Do any of these look familiar? Expecting an employee to:
- procure services with an inadequate budget,
- deploy technology with no IT support,
- manage people having had no management training or support,
- improve efficiency with no access to data or metrics, or
- take the lead on a project while being micromanaged
Once again, these are all examples of projects doomed to fail. The direct report is never really, truly accountable, as he does not have the resources or authority to complete the task in the first place.
The employee may physically complete the work, but if the manager controls the decisions/resources, the manager is still the one accountable. When such projects fail, the manager is at fault not the direct report. Or stated more eloquently, when the manager is pulling the strings, he can’t blame the puppet for bad performance.
Before accepting accountability for project or a task, employees should ensure that they have:
- Adequate resources (financial, technical and human) assigned to get the job done
- The personal capability (ability, skill and knowledge) to perform the task
- The authority to make decisions and expend resources
- Latitude to execute their own ideas and methods
- Access to the required stakeholders, customers, decision-makers
If any of the above are not satisfied you cannot truly be accountable for project. You must revisit the project with your manager to address the obvious shortcomings.
If you are the manager who has assigned the task to a direct report, you must ensure he has the wherewithal to get it done, or assign it to someone who has the appropriate authority, resources and ability.
When people are demanding more accountability, we find this is most often a call for stronger and more consistently applied consequences. “Consequences” are of course the results – in most cases the rewards or punishment – of the action taken. Direct reports must know what these results will be when they do or do not achieve their goals. If there are no consequences for poor or good performance, or the employee is unaware of them, then a key motivator is absent.
Why are consequences so often the missing link in establishing accountability? Managers may not give the consequences enough thought, may not be creative about the ways they can incent or redirect behavior, and may not communicate them clearly if they do exist. Moreover, many managers complain that they do not have the latitude to either bestow rewards or reprimand failure. Often, the manager is just not aware of what he or she can do. Here are some options:
Bonuses and stock awards when tied to performance are clearly good motivators. However, penalizing poor behaviors by taking something away (privileges, awards, titles, etc.) is not so easy. Companies are often reluctant to terminate or to reassign those who have failed.
Additionally, when it comes time to deliver the consequences, often managers avoid the conflict caused by addressing poor performance, and may be reluctant to praise positive behavior for fear it will lead to employee complacency. This behavior is one we do not understand, and have a hard time accepting. Communicating and delivering consequences (both positive and negative) is an essential part of a manager’s job. If planned and positioned appropriately, it does not have to be a negative or anxiety-inducing chore for all involved. It will deliver the final element of accountability. Again, remember to plan out and communicate the consequences up front, and remember these basic principles:
- Suitability: The consequences (positive or negative) must be commensurate with goal difficulty
- Immediacy: The consequence should promptly follow the outcome
- Certainty: Employees must know that the agreed upon consequences will follow the actions
Take care to avoid the “we learned from it and moved on” attitude expressed by employees when projects fail miserably. This is an all-too-common and inappropriate reaction. For consequences to be an effective part of building accountability there must be consistency in how they are delivered over time and across employees. Furthermore consequence should be explicitly stated not implied or inferred.
Accountable Versus Responsible
Most who have tried to fill out or follow a RACI diagram (management tool that describes tasks in terms of Responsible-Accountable-Consulted-Informed) know the frustrating, unanswerable discussion that can ensue about who is accountable versus responsible. In reality, there is little difference between these words. Look in a dictionary, the definitions are the same. These words are used interchangeably, and one is almost always used to define the other. So, for all who have struggled with RACI (and we fall in that category), arguing if you are responsible for something, you are also accountable, and if you are accountable, then it seems like you are in some ways responsible, then you are RIGHT!
RACI has been around since the 1970’s relatively unchanged (and keep in mind this was the decade that gave us Sea Monkeys and mood rings), so we propose making some upgrades to this otherwise useful task management tool. First, reframe the tool as an “Accountability Matrix”. Use it to show the different types of participation that are needed to complete a task, all of which contribute to the overall accountability. That means drop “Accountable” from the categories, and just go with “Responsible”. Second, when you feel the urge to assign responsibility to people at different levels for the same task, the appropriate way to deal with this is to break the task into sub-tasks and assign accordingly. The higher level tasks will have “R” for the higher level people who are “responsible” for a whole set of tasks (but maybe not actually, physically DOING the tasks). The lower level tasks will still have “R’s” for the lower level folks who are the “doers” for that sub-task. Either way, only one category is needed.
Next, we propose adding a classification that signifies the one who sets the goals, gives the authority and establishes the consequences. This person should be “Driver” – the person in the organizational chain of command who has the power to demand that action be taken, the one who will apportion the responsibility. Aside from clearing up the accountability-responsibility confusion, this change facilitates the discussion of what accountability entails. Each time the D for Driver is assigned to a task, it serves as a reminder that establishing goals, authority and consequences are required for the Driver to fulfill their part in the task. So, that leaves us with a DRCI, not quite as smooth as “RACI”, so we suggest calling it “Accountability Matrix”. We think these changes will keep this tool relevant for at least another decade or two.
Our final thoughts are around what this means for you personally – as a manager trying to hold direct reports accountable, or as an employee trying to be accountable for your work.
As A Manager…
As a reminder, setting the expectation and granting the authority are keys to establishing accountability. We would like to place emphasis on the final key – consequences. One of the toughest things a manager has to do is address failure. There is no easy way around this issue – to establish accountability, the manager must meet this challenge head-on. Put clear, meaningful consequences in place, and by all means follow through.
As a Direct Report…
Before accepting a task, look at the accountability structure. If you are not aware of the expectation, do not have the proper authority to act and do not know what the consequences will be at the end of the day, you may find yourself in a bad situation. Build a case for getting clarification of goals, assignment of resources and the authority to act and make sure you know the consequences. Finally, be prepared to accept the consequences if you do fail. Do it gracefully. Own up to your behavior and learn from it. That is accountability.
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Either you make the sale, or you don’t
In a Sales function, sales employee actions typically have a direct impact on the numbers, and the actions and outcomes are well understood. Consider sales tasks such as calling customers, making formal sales presentations, etc. These are relatively simple to track, and have a direct impact on business outcomes (i.e., revenue). Sales people may have additional administrative tasks (e.g., expense reporting) and the occasional “special project” that is a little more difficult to measure, but the core of their work is measured based on hard dollars or percent growth.
Likewise, a factory line employee’s physical action results in a something relatively quantifiable (e.g., create a weld, build a transmission, assemble a new car), and again, these tasks account for the core of their job. Although not necessarily the easiest jobs, sales managers and factory line managers do have an advantage over managers in other functions in holding their direct reports accountable. Due to the nature of the work, mangers can more easily set numbers-based goals, establish consequences, and measure success. Keep in mind that authority, resources and ability to achieve the goal still vary however, and need to be in place to create accountability.
But we’re professionals…
Other functions, however, are not so fortunate. Many roles have goals that are not as readily measured, making it more difficult to hold employees accountable for the things that matter to the business. Support functions and mid-level management are two such areas. These roles often include responsibilities with complex, qualitative outcomes that cannot be easily associated with bottom-line business results (to adapt a John Wanamaker quotation: “I know half of my support efforts work, I just don’t know which half!”). To make things even more difficult, employees in these functions often are highly educated professionals who take offense when attempts to measure their work reduce it to a “metric”. Human Resources departments in particular find that measuring the success of their programs and initiatives (and holding people accountable for the success of those programs) is challenging. One common example is accountability for the ROI of an organization’s leadership development program. Although Kirkpatrick’s model has done much to help gauge the impact of training programs, training departments still struggle to get their arms around ROI. Because of that, success in these programs is measured not by contributions to business growth and bottom line return (which senior management tends to refer to as a “success measure/metric” by which to hold someone accountable), but by the more easily measured participant reaction and learning scores.
But the light is better over here…
The problem is that when the “real” success indicators go unmeasured, two things happen. First, the manager supposedly being held accountable for ROI, but measured by attendance as a proxy for ROI, will naturally work toward the goal of getting butts in seats, not necessarily focusing on the impact of the program. This may leave him or her open to negative consequences if the whole of the program is deemed a failure, even though the attendance goal was attained. Second and most commonly, no one ends up being held accountable for what is most important to the business – the impact of the program on leaders’ ability to drive the business forward. So what does this have to do with the title of this section? Well, it is about the man looking for his lost keys under the street light. A passerby asks if he lost the keys here, and the man says no, over there. So when the passerby asks why the man isn’t looking for his keys over there, the man answers “But the light is so much better over here”. In other words, we often focus on what is easiest to measure (butts in seats), rather than what is most meaningful, but hard to see (ROI).
Don’t give up
Although we cannot offer a “silver bullet” to resolve the issue, we have found that with some extra effort, management in these functions can put in place better measures to increase accountability. Some of the strategies we use are:
- Start with a clear understanding of what outcomes are most important to senior leadership. Never assume to know which measures they value, always ask.
- Use multiple, weighted measures to “triangulate” on the primary measure for accountability. Leadership training impact, for example, might be measured through a combination of performance ratings, employee engagement scores, self-assessments, staff turnover, number of promotions, 360 degree ratings, etc.
- On the flip side, however, do not measure everything just because the data may be available. Pick the key indicators of success and ignore the rest!
- Carefully define and communicate the measurement process. Although many are held accountable for “ROI”, few are able to explain how ROI is calculated, were the data came from, and so on.
- Ensure direct reports have a solid understanding of performance expectations, measures and consequences – never assume people know.
- Be in it for the long haul. One of the measurement difficulties in management and support functions is a longer time horizon for many of their efforts. Implement intermediate goals and provide progress measures to keep the direct report on track.
- Take advantage of simple project management tools to plan and track progress, and report the results regularly.
- Ensure open and continuous communication about progress against goals. Do not wait until the end to “surprise” the employee with results. This is not the Academy Awards – people want to know how they are tracking against their assigned goals.
While it is sometimes a struggle to ensure adequate measures by which to hold people accountable, it is worth the time and effort. In the absence of hard and/or easily accessible data on the impact of a particular initiative, other measurement tools, such as customer surveys, can be used to assess capabilities and determine consequences. If you happen to manage a function where solid accountability measures are readily available, then consider yourself fortunate. For the rest of us, particularly those in support functions and middle management roles, do not let the challenge of measurement make you give up on improving accountability within your function.
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In our post on what accountability means, we spent some time explaining the essential elements of accountability: Goals, Authority, Consequences and Measurement. These are focused mainly on managing the behavior of direct reports by encouraging managers to think though the underlying motivational principles that either promote or inhibit accountability. This article focuses more on the process of holding people accountable, providing an almost color-by-number toolset for managers to manage and track accountability on their teams. The three tools we highlight, Accountability Matrix, RAIL and preciseTRACKERTM are all used successfully by our team and our clients to drive accountability on projects. We hope they can help you as well.
Communicate Who is Doing What: Accountability Matrix
The Accountability Matrix (or “DRCI”: Driver-Responsible-Consulted-Informed) is a simple tool that a team or manager can use to provide a picture of who is on the hook for which tasks or deliverables. In our project management training, we present this matrix where tasks (e.g., project tasks, to-do list, decisions) are listed in rows and the various roles (can be team member names, roles, titles, etc.) are listed as column headings. Each person’s expected contribution to each task is noted in each cell. For example, for a basic process improvement project, you might prepare a diagram like the one below. Keep in mind that how the assignments are made is debatable and depends on the project, but the key value of this tool is in communicating with the team and gaining commitment to act.
Here, the Sponsor is the driver for setting the high-level goals of the project, the Project Manager is Responsible for most project planning and reporting tasks, while the other roles are either performing other portions of the work, giving input (Consulted) or finding out about it after the fact (Informed). The roles are defined as:
- Driver (D): The party who compels the action to be taken by establishing the goal, authority and consequences for the action. He/she has the power of veto. Only one entity can be Driver for any task, activity or decision. Ideally, this is a single person, but can also be a committee, team or other entity with shared decision making authority.
- Responsible (R): The individual(s) who ensures that the task is completed. If there are components of a task that are delegated to other people, the task should be broken into sub-tasks and assigned appropriately. The fewer R’s for a task, the better. A person who is responsible may also be Driver.
- Consulted (C): The individual(s) who need to be consulted prior to a final decision or action being taken. This is TWO-WAY communication. Consulted parties may not have a direct part in the task but are affected by its completion, and their input may be necessary.
- Informed (I): The individual(s) who need to be kept up-to-date on progress, or informed after a decision or action is taken. This is ONE-WAY communication. Input from the informed party is not necessary.
Click here to download our template.
Holding Accountable Involves Keeping Track: RAIL
The RAIL (Rolling Action Item List) is similar to a project plan, but is a less structured, simple tool to keep track of tasks, decisions and miscellaneous to-dos that are not part of any organized project or initiative. The main point of a RAIL or any task list is to keep track of “who is doing what and when”. Typically a RAIL includes the following elements:
- What needs to be done (action/task/decision)
- How important is the task (priority rating)
- Who has asked for this task to be done (driver)
- Who is doing the work (responsible)
- When is the task due?
- What is the status (e.g., Not Started, In Progress, On Hold, Complete, Cancelled)?
- Additional note/comment.
A RAIL can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. You can build it on paper, an Excel spreadsheet, Outlook task list, an online system, or mobile phone app. In our experience the most important thing is that it is actually used – only the tools that are simple to learn and quick to update are used consistently over time.
Click here to download the template.
A More Structured Approach: preciseTRACKERTM
Many common project management tools provide structure for holding people accountable. In our office, we use an online project and meeting management tool that we developed in-house to manage our projects, meeting follow-ups and task lists.
We developed this tool, preciseTRACKERTM because at one point when our project load grew beyond what we could keep track of informally. We realized we needed to better organize, standardize and automate our projects and office tasks. We tried a variety of project management software applications, but within a few months, we would be less inclined to go to the trouble of keeping the tool updated, and soon were back where we started (i.e., everyone managing tasks in their own ways). We found that at the heart of the problem was the extra time it took to set up and manage the tool itself, and that for the laundry list of office to-dos and our smaller projects, only a few key functions of each tool were ever used anyway.
In looking at the “home grown” methods we were using – most of which were Excel-based lists – we found one of our developers had built a web-based project tracking tool to manage his own projects. When the rest of the team tried it, it was adopted immediately. The fact that it was web-based made it accessible anywhere, and it naturally included only the functions that we used in the majority of our projects (for large-scale projects we still default to Microsoft Project). That marked the birth of preciseTRACKER™. After using it internally for a while, we added the ability to invite clients and share project progress and communications with them, schedule meetings, document decisions and review accountability through the system. Over the years we have added to the functionality, and about a year ago decided to offer it as a product. It may work for you as well, and if you want to try it out, we are offering a free trial for a limited time.
These are the tools that we use to support accountability in our office, and we hope they will be useful to managers in tracking accountability on their own teams.
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“Organizational Realities” chronicles observations, and presents ideas and advice for thriving in the workplace. While many articles will have a clear psychological slant, we aim to present pragmatic recommendations in a light and somewhat irreverent manner.What would you like to change about yourself? Your colleagues? Your manager? Do you find it challenging to manage relationships in the workplace while navigating the inevitable organizational politics and career derailers? Do you crave strategic direction, autonomy or visibility? You are not alone! We all struggle with finding the right balance between adapting to and shaping our work environment.Click here to view all of our posts on Micromanagement and here to view our posts on Accountability.
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