Accountability is frequently cited as a strategic initiative success factor. As Kaplan and Norton (authors of the Balanced Score Card and Execution Premium) say, “without clear responsibility and accountability, execution programs will go nowhere.”
In the abstract, “assigning accountability” or to “holding people accountable” seems commonsense. I often ask people in my seminars, “Is accountability is a good thing or a bad thing?” Usually people say that it is a good thing (although the enthusiasm for that conclusion is weak). In practice, accountability commonly equates to blame assignment and punishment.
In my experience, accountability is a reflection of the organization’s culture. It seems to be a positive attribute when the culture values transparency about roles, responsibilities, and promises. It also seems to be more valued and productive when the organization has a strong performance appraisal system for individuals.
How to Instill Accountability in Your Strategic Initiative
Strategic initiatives reflect and are constrained by the culture, but a leader and create a “micro-culture” for the team. With that idea in mind, I offer this definition,
Accountability is the willingness to have your performance measured.
The discipline of accounting is perhaps the most well-developed and highly institutionalized function in any large organization. Its standards and principles provide simplicity and reassurance that the organization can define and measure performance. It is from this idea of accounting that we derive the word accountability. Since accounting is the practice of measurement, this definition of accountability is consistent and sensible. It is neutral with respect to punishment.
Consider these practical implications:
- Performance outcomes must be known. I have previously writing about performance gaps, vision, and metrics. The trick is to take the initiative’s outcomes and to create metrics for the individual.
- Consequences should be discussed. Most companies view strategic initiatives as an element on the career path. It is better to make the consequences (both good and bad) clear to individuals.
- Transparency is valued in the initiative. We want team members to surface risks and issues.
- Sponsor and program roles become clearer.
- Integrity becomes thought of as the alignment of thought, words, and actions.
- Trust is improved.
I recommend that organizations drop the phrase “hold people accountable” from their discussions. Think about it this way: How would you react if someone with coercive power said to you, “I’m going to hold you hostage.” You would feel threatened and defensive. There are better ways to motivate people.
Clarifying Responsibility versus Accountability
Responsibility is the “ability to make a response” and is a choice that individuals make. A person can choose to respond, or not. Accountability now becomes a more neutral concept: a person chooses to be part of a strategic initiative and that person further chooses to have his/her performance measured.
Accountability is an attribute of organizational culture related to integrity and transparency. Do you agree?
If you like my ideas in this blog, you should check out (and subscribe to) my Strategic Thinking blog. The latest article there is:
- How to Improve Your Ability to Imagine the Future (strategicthinkingcoach.wordpress.com)