Matt's Articles

Am I accountable?

Last month I introduced the topic of “accountability” and wrote about why this is so important to an organization. This month I am going to continue the topic and discuss why organizations lack accountability. 

As I mentioned in the last article, “people here aren’t held accountable” or “no one is accountable for their work” are things I typically hear. I get it! Yes, these things are often true, but I can honestly say that I have never heard someone say to me, “Matt, I am just not accountable to anything around here.” The problem is always something that someone else lacks. These one-sided views of problems make me skeptical of the cause of the problem. The reality is, if we think long and hard we all struggle with accountability. We all lack accountability at times. Rather than point fingers, we need to reflect on the reasons why the organization lacks accountability if we hope to get any better. Below are the reasons why I think we struggle with this topic. 

Being accountable means:

  1. Admitting flaws.
  2. Accepting feedback from others.
  3. We have to track performance – stop, document, and reflect.
  4. We have to align on the goal.

The first two struggles are the most challenging because they are norms and behavioral issues. Behaviors are hard to change. In organizations where admitting flaws means ridicule, people will devise all forms of avoidance from accountability. The last thing someone in these organizations will want or accept is feedback from others. The high performers are those that are best at appearing perfect and best at keeping problems from connecting or sticking to them. Politics rule and even suggestions of a problem will cause fierce emotional reactions. I am describing an extreme, though I know that many of my readers have seen this sort of organization. Strong accountability systems will always point out flaws. For many of us, this can be hard or impossible to accept in an organization where perfection is required. I have yet to see a “perfect” working organization or “perfect” person for that matter. In high functioning organizations people are able to admit and reflect on failures. That is, they are accountable. Equally important to note is that we all struggle with feedback from others. Our first inclination is defense, typically made up of excuses. We rationalize what went wrong rather than to accept the criticism. This prevents us from learning and exploring the behaviors to change. It traps us in behavior patterns that produce low functioning organizations. To produce accountability we have to both listen to feedback and accept flaws. We all have them.  

The third and fourth struggles are structural and related to management. Lean Six Sigma methods are useful in addressing these struggles. We typically start with the dashboards, strategy meetings, and other mechanisms needed to build the system for accountability. In my experience, this is the right place to start, though we should not lose sight of the behavioral issues. Those issues must also be addressed to be successful.

The challenge in implementing these structures is often that daily work is emphasized over improvement work. The leadership team has a few planning sessions and sets targets, but they do not review the targets often enough, resource the activities needed to achieve the targets, clearly communicate the objectives, or make time to revise the targets or strategies. As a result, the organization doesn’t know what to be accountable to and doesn’t have the proper checks for accountability. They are left to create their own agendas. Even worse, they are accountable for things that are not aligned with the larger organizational goals. 

Finally, I find that people tend to want to just do the work and not record what was completed or the associated outcome. Without a record there is no checking. Without checking there is no feedback. And without feedback there is no accountability. Record keeping and documentation are simple steps. Understandably, in the fast pace of business these are tedious and often skipped steps. In reaction to this problem management searches for simple tools to automatically capture and oversee what people are doing. They use it as an incentive or punishment system. This top down authoritarian method only makes people look for ways to “beat” the monitoring system. It would be better to help people see how journaling and data collection produces better outcomes not just for the company, but for themselves as individuals within the organization. Imagine an environment where people actually prefer to be accountable because it helps them achieve personal goals. We actually set personal goals all the time. It is possible!

Lean Six Sigma, and many business management approaches can help resolve the 3rd and 4th struggles. The concepts are adopted throughout most large multinational companies today. Struggles 1 and 2 are cultural. These are more challenging to address. Outside coaches are often required in changing the behaviors of management to become more welcoming of feedback. The saying I like is “all good is no good.” Accepting this is an important component to accountability.