Matt's Articles

I Am Accountable


In this newsletter, I will continue my discussion on accountability by providing my thoughts on how it is created. Last month I alluded to the idea that struggles with accountability are related to governance and culture. Accountability, like so many things, starts at the top. For the leader of an organization, accountability is nearly inescapable. She is accountable to the board, the customer, and the employee. She is constantly held accountable. Implementing the structures and norms to push accountability down and across the organization is challenging. 

Human beings are driven and motivated by purpose. We can be inspired by the purpose or we can become apathetic due to the lack of a clear and understandable purpose. I have seen both. Obviously, the workforce inspired by purpose is more innovative, effective, efficient, adaptable and quite frankly, fun to be around. A strong mission statement and inspiring vision are great ways to get started, but their impact quickly dissipates if the organization cannot see and feel the pursuit toward the purpose. An organization must see that the leadership teams are holding themselves accountable to making progress toward the purpose they communicate. This means that the starting point for accountability is a governance system that translates the organization’s mission into meaningful targets that then are achieved through specific activities or programs. At Motorola we used a method we called “JumpStart.” Any of my readers that were at the company in the 2000’s might remember the “Big Y” or Yyx diagrams. I won’t bore you with the mechanics of this, I just want to point out that it is an effective method I still use today. Another popular method comes from the Lean practitioners. Most people refer to it as Hoshin Kanri. The best book that I have read on this topic is “Getting the Right Things Done” by Pascal Dennis. Either of these are great starting points for addressing the governance part of accountability. As a quick side note, I am happy to say that from my observation over the last decade many organizations have adopted some form of this and adhere to it on an annual basis.  

A strong governance framework such as the yearly “JumpStart” is only part of the solution. Frankly, I have seen companies invest time in a multi-day offsite program to create their missions, KPIs, and initiatives and then think they are done. This just begins the process. The leadership team must feel ongoing ownership. They must be the champion for ongoing governance, and they must put equal energy into these long term initiatives as they do the day to day challenges that have a much stronger pull and consume so much mindshare. It is all too easy to let the day to day over shadow the long term purpose. It is easy to let the need for near term results sacrifice progress toward the long term purpose. When employees see leadership make this trade off for short term gain or play lip service to the lack of progress on broader goals they eventually become apathetic to the company’s mission. They also become apathetic to even those short term results that leadership is trying so hard to effect. Perception rules; stories around the water cooler drive perceptions. Part of the governance is a defense against this by communicating the great work that was completed in the offsite meeting. Communicate how the leadership team will hold themselves accountable to the specific deliverables for the initiatives that are going to allow the organization to meet the goals so important to the mission and purpose that is used to inspire employees. Then it’s important to communicate the progress on all of this great work to the organization. That might mean being transparent where progress is not getting made, or when the company needs to focus on short term goals due to specific circumstances. It also means celebrating the progress that is being made and making sure the employees feel that they are a part of that progress. Who wouldn’t want to feel accountable to success? Everyone does! This draws people into that accountability system. As a result, leaders won’t need to enforce day to day accountability allowing them to focus on the longer term work. It will also make it easier to admit when we are not making progress and be accountable to the poor results as well. If you recall my article from last month, I am describing the bridge between the governance system that provides the mechanism and norms and the culture that must support that mechanism. In short, culture is the result of shared experiences and shared stories. Those experiences can be created by the selection of work that the company performs and the stories that are recognized and communicated from the top. 

Creating accountability in the organization will take many activities in multiple dimensions. In my experience, it starts with the leadership team and the governance that they place around the mission. There are many structures that exist to do this and they are quite common in industry today. They all can work, given that the leadership commits to: 

  1. Hard measures of progress.
  2. Resourcing initiatives to achieve progress.
  3. A cadence of review that holds the leaders accountable to progress at their level.
  4. Frequent, transparent communication of progress occurring at all levels of the organization. 

Do these things well and you will begin to build the culture of accountability.