Category Archives: Accountability

The First Seven Breakdowns in Work Conversations

For those who have read my earlier posts, you know that I have a particular interest in the structure and quality of work conversations.  The smallest element of any achievement is not a task; it’s a conversation.  Any team or organization is nothing more than a network of conversations.  These person-to-person conversations can be thought of as the exchanging of information and energy much like the cells in your body.  The quality of these exchanges determines the effectiveness of the whole organism/organization.  It follows, therefore, that the most powerful way to improve performance of an individual, a team, or a company is to improve the quality of the dialog.

“Leadership is a phenomenon of the conversations of a team, not of an individual. A team participates in a set of ongoing conversations among people who commit to share an explicitly declared mission and to coordinate actions to fulfill the mission. The leader takes action to ensure that these conversations take place and that they are assessed by the team to be effective.” (Fernando Flores)

This is intended to be the first of a series of articles that provide more specifics about how to improve the quality of work conversations.  It’s one thing to state the general premise that conversations matter.  My intent is to be more specific; I intend to describe specific behaviors that evidence good and bad conversations.  Let’s begin with recognizing some of the most common breakdowns in work conversations that create miscommunication, low engagement or even resignation, and poor execution.  Note that 5 relate to the Requester’s side of the conversation and 2 relate to the Performer’s.


1)    Not Making Requests – Wanting or needing something from someone else and not making the request.  A request is a clear statement of a desired result within a time frame.  It is surprising how few managers are able to make requests, but it is not hard to explain.  Making a request acknowledges dependence and exposes vulnerability.  In addition, we each have a built in reticence or fear of hearing a “no” response and feeling rejected.

2) Living with Uncommunicated Expectations – A pernicious form of “not requesting” occurs when an individual lives in a world of “shoulds” and expectations that are really unexpressed requests.  This amounts to private conversations with ourselves about what others should and should not do.  There is some inherent dishonesty in this behavior.

3) Making Unclear Requests – Lack of clarity and precision in a request generates breakdowns.  Others do not see the world as you do.  Effective requests are specific, precise and detailed.  Note, however, that making effective requests requires more attention and commitment from the requester.

Making clear requests often requires extra effort to think through more precisely what outcome is desired.  A preliminary conversation with the team is sometimes needed to achieve better clarity about what’s needed and who can do it.  The requester, therefore, shares the accountability for the outcome.

4) Not Observing the Mood of Requesting – Making a request like a demand or like a beggar.  The mood of your utterance affects the listener as much as your words.  If the mood is demanding, your performer might decline your requests because they see you as arrogant and righteous, or they might make promises to you out of intimidation, not choice, and these commitments are weak and rarely fulfilled.

5) Promising even when you aren’t clear of what was requested – Committing to something you are not clear about is foolish.  More, it is also a breakdown in integrity to take on a task that the performer knows is unclear.  Failure to meet expectations is built in from the start.  Not being clear about what will be delivered will guarantee wasted effort.

6) Not Declining Requests – The ability for a performer to decline requests is crucial for health, dignity and well-being.  This is a common sense notion, but radical at the same time.  Most managers operate from an implicit position of “I pay my people well and I expect them to do what I ask of them.”  And perhaps even more important, team members/staff people have no experience nor confidence in the possibility that they could actually decline a request.   And yet, if there is no room to ever say no to a request, how can either the manager or the performer ever trust a yes.

7) Breaking Promises Without Taking Care – Promises are not guarantees that deliveries will be made on time, but breakdowns do need careful handling.  The requester implicitly trusts that the performer is sincere, competent, and reliable to do what they’ve promised.  Breakdowns occur, but so as not to undermine that trust, the performer must honor their original promise by immediately notifying the requester and being open to making a new promise.  In this way the performer is staying accountable and behaving in integrity with what they have said.

Getting task-related conversations off on the right foot is an important beginning to an effective “conversation for action”.  Future blog posts will describe guidelines for how the conversation should progress to maximize the chances for a successful outcome.


A “Workspace” for Knowledge Workers – what does this really mean? Eight characteristics of next-generation workspaces.

As social networking and particularly collaboration technologies have flourished, so have a whole new crop of terms intended to describe what differentiates these new capabilities from the old. One of the new terms is “shared workspace”. It’s now common for vendors to tout their new “workspace” somewhere in their marketing. But beyond the claims, there is little discussion about what is really meant by the term. My intention is to dig a little deeper into describing what most current vendors mean by a “shared workspace” and the characteristics that distinguish a next-generation workspace.

Knowledge workers of today who are more often remote and mobile do certainly benefit from technologies that provide the virtual equivalent of the old whiteboard in a meeting.  Not surprisingly, there is a wide spectrum of capabilities that various vendors use to describe their “workspace”. The single common understanding is that “shared workspaces” support collaborative input, editing, and updates from more than one person at the same time, i.e. it’s a multi-user tool.  While email technically allows any party in the dialog to add a comment at any time, the general idea is more like ping-pong. One person sends a note and another person responds. The first person waits for the response; it’s a back and forth paradigm. Email certainly presented a new “workspace” to users 30 years ago. Current day tools support capture of anyone-anytime-anywhere dialog in the context of a work group or project.

Some consider a shared document to be a workspace. Enabling multiple people to view and edit the same document at the same time is certainly a huge step beyond email, but producing shared documents is only a relatively small part of what knowledge workers do.

Modern workspaces also provide the basic capabilities of storing and retrieving shared documents in a shared repository. A shared workspace typically also includes ready access to your colleagues organized by group or project and the ability to post comments in a shared view.

The software provided by most of today’s vendors utilize a one-to-many paradigm. The workspace is a shared forum in which collaborators update each other in real time. Anyone in the group can post updates at any time, and all group members are updated simultaneously. While keeping colleagues up to date is important, such workspaces engender intermittent participation from team mates and the workspace provides only limited focus on individual accountability for who is delivering what by when.

The most advanced workspaces, however, go much further. The software is not just an open field where participants have the possibility to add a comment or respond to someone else’s post. The workspace technology actually functions like a facilitating third-party to the conversation.

I take it for granted that the workspace must be easy to use. Who doesn’t make this claim? A more interesting differentiating characteristic is whether the workspace is passive or active.

 Passive vs. Active workspaces

Passive workspaces sit there, a virtual blank canvas that collaborators can write on together.   The passive workspace collects and displays the inputs from participants and may even provide some search (e.g. tags) and sorting features, but the technology offers nothing to directly influence the content, style, or mood of the communications that are going on.

Active workspaces act like a third party in the work conversations. An active workspace guides the participants into how to conduct a focused collaborative action that leads to results. It facilitates a certain structure and rigor, the rules of engagement so to speak. The conversation is “managed” so as to increase the likelihood of a successful delivery. The software is also specifically designed to facilitate the quality of the conversation (e.g. who says what to whom) and in so doing to build a positive relationship between the parties going forward.  Task and relationship management are combined.

Eight characteristics of a next-generation workspace 

Following are 8 specific characteristics of active, next-generation workspaces that are not yet generally available in the marketplace:

1– Context. Entries are organized in a thread that is specifically related to some action or result someone has requested, i.e. not just a general posting.

2– Focus.  Dialog is focused on what we are trying to accomplish, i.e. the explicit requested outcome by when. Who is involved, who is the accountable performer, and who else is an interested observer to the conversation? What’s the current status, i.e. is the task on track or not?

3– Structure.  Composing the goal or task request must contain certain information. Structure cannot be so confining, however, as to inhibit the flexibility needed for natural conversations.

4– Ownership.  Views show who’s got the ball at this moment to move the conversation along. Who is waiting for who?

5– Next steps.  What are the appropriate next actions any user could/should take next? The software provides a set of shared ground-rules for “managing” the conversation including expected responses at any particular point in the dialog. An underlying “intelligent” workflow keeps things moving forward.

6– Setting the mood.  The software prompts what “words” are appropriate to set up the optimum “mood” for the conversation that will enhance respect, engagement, and trust.

7– Closing the loop.  Delivery of agreed outcomes is explicit. Performers don’t  claim “done”; instead they assert that a delivery was made and let the original requester confirm whether the delivery was satisfactory.  Team leaders accept and express satisfaction and feedback.

8– A history.  Memory of past conversations is preserved for later review and analysis. Participants build their reputation as a reliable team member. One’s integrity (i.e. say what you’ll do, do what you say) is catalogued and supported by data.  Trust improves.

4Spires solutions are examples of next-generation workspaces that include all of these characteristics.

How Is Accountability Put Into Practice

In a recent blog post Suresh Kumar, President of KaiZen Innovation and former Assistant Commerce Secretary for Trade Promotion appointed by President Obama asked a key question: “What does it take to put accountability into practice?  How does one create a culture of responsibility and integrity?  Leaders need to nourish the cultural context and manifestations of accountability.  Leader-member exchanges create an atmosphere of mutual responsibility and obligation.  Monitoring creates a natural context for dense feedback.  Providing feedback successfully requires a high level of management credibility. Accountability depends upon defining who is responsible for what.  The leader needs to set, and get agreement on, expectations that are clear, measurable, and personal.”

As Suresh points out, accountability is NOT about setting a goal or assigning a due date to see if a person delivers.  Real accountability is achieved in a “conversation”.  In fact, achieving commitment and engagement requires a particular pattern of conversation.  I’m referring to the ground-breaking work of Fernando Flores, and others, who developed the practice of “commitment-based management”.  The model he developed of a “conversation for action” is simple, even obvious, but powerful for achieving accountability in practice.

The conversation progresses through 4 stages – Request, Negotiation, Delivery, and Assessment.  The leader/manager or even a colleague begins with a request to a specific performer (e.g. Can you…by this date?).  The performer provides an explicit response (i.e., Agree, Decline, Counter-Offer).  Once a clear agreement is reached between the two parties, the conversation moves to the Delivery stage during which the parties keep in touch with each other regarding progress or issues as they arise.  Next, the performer delivers what they said they would deliver or explains why they couldn’t.  The conversation moves to the final assessment stage where the requester accepts the delivery and provides feedback about their satisfaction.  The cycle repeats for each goal or task.

What excites me most about this model is the effect this practice has as an organization development intervention to build a culture of autonomy, transparency and trust.  Performers are “elevated” and engaged at a peer level relationship (as opposed to a command and control leadership style).  The quid pro quo for providing greater autonomy and control to the performer is palpable accountability for achieving outcomes.  The practice introduces a new style of conversation.

The act of making a “request” (vs. an assignment) changes the mood of the conversation from the outset.  What we say, the words we use and how we say them, changes the quality of the interaction between individuals.  New words (e.g. request, commitment, counter-offer, decline, assessment) are introduced into the organization, which drive more explicit accountability for the performer and the requester.

New technology can be very helpful to introduce and reinforce this “conversation for action” model.  To see this in “action” for yourself, check out the 4Spires demo.

Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” – A Commentary

In 2002, Patrick Lencioni wrote “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” describing the many pitfalls teams face and the fundamental causes of organizational politics and team failure.  Despite the lack of actual data to support his observations, the book has been on the New York Times and Business Week best-seller list, and it is a favorite of many organization consultants.  This is no doubt because the dysfunctions are so familiar.

Lencioni describes the hierarchy of the five dysfunctions:

  • Absence of trust — if team members are unwilling to take interpersonal risks with one another and are unwilling to be vulnerable or to admit mistakes and weaknesses; this culminates in poor trust-building practices.  (Note: See my other blog articles on Trust.)
  • Fear of conflict — when teams are incapable of engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas, the outcome is that members rely on carefully crafted safe statements to avoid conflict and reprisal; the unvarnished truth is not spoken.
  • Lack of commitment — without healthy conflict team members feign buy-in; causing ambiguity about decisions. If there is agreement, it is done begrudgingly or to deflect conflict.
  • Avoidance of accountability — without commitment and buy-in, accountability suffers as it is hard to hold someone accountable for what you do not believe in.  Performance standards decline when no one is called out on their counterproductive behavior.
  • Inattention to results — if team members do not hold each other accountable, results suffer. Individual interests, such as status and ego, override the team’s agenda.

Lencioni’s model

We can all recognize these dysfunctional tendencies.  In fact, these are present to a lesser or greater degree in virtually every team.  So the question remains; how can leaders promote improvement along these dimensions?

Many organization consultants use this model in team-based interventions and executive coaching.  Recognizing the dysfunctions and understanding how they affect team performance is not difficult, the hard part is changing them.  How exactly do leaders change the norms, practices, and behaviors of individual team members?

The root of the problems and the focus for making change is in the nature of the conversations going on among team members, i.e., who is saying what to whom, on what topics, with what words, in what mood, etc.  The team dysfunctions are manifested in the dialog, or lack thereof, going on between team members.  To make improvements in team performance, managers need to focus on these conversations.

In his 2013 book Conversations For Action and Collected Essays: Instilling a Culture of Commitment in Working Relationships, Fernando Flores wrote:

“Leadership is a phenomenon of the conversations of a team, not of an individual.  The role of the leader is to make sure the right conversations are happening and that they are being assessed by the team as being effective.  These are not one-way messages like take out the trash or do this task, but rather two-way conversations in which individuals share their background concerns, negotiate agreements for taking action together, and continuously develop a shared assessment of how the work and their relationship is progressing.”

Lencioni’s model is used by many management consultants to help leaders and groups understand the roots of their performance problems and to prompt changes in the group’s conversational patterns.  For some this can be an important intervention illuminating a pathway for change.

The real challenge, however, is making the intervention stick.  It is one thing to learn the model and quite another to change a group’s behavior, their practices around the structure and quality of their conversations.  Even if this can be done during an intervention spanning a few weeks, how can the manager, leader or group make sure the new practices stick over the long haul?

This challenge is one of the reasons 4Spires developed its social task management solutionCommitKeeper. The software helps to instantiate new practices around conversations that address all of the team dysfunctions.  CommitKeeper prompts explicit responses to requests and assures that clear commitments are made and that each party maintains proper and ongoing communication throughout the entire cycle: initial request through post-delivery.  Accountability is made visible and the software keeps a detailed record of results.  Trust is built through more honest conversations and a track record of making and keeping one’s commitments.

I’m betting the interventions that yield the best long term results will include a combination of training accompanied by the CommitKeeper software.

Elevating Employee Engagement – New Technology Can Make a Difference

Improving employee engagement is a perennial management concern.  While difficult to quantify, there is little debate that engaged employees contribute more to the enterprise.  An HR executive recently summarized the keys to improving engagement with three words: “Respect, Empower, Inspire.”

Ok, fine, but how does a company or manager do this exactly?  Beyond admonitions to managers, what specific behaviors can managers employ?  I suggest one key lever to focus on is how managers communicate with their staff, i.e., what words are used, what are the conversational patterns, what are the means of following-up and reaching closure, etc.  These are “systematic behaviors” that can be observed and strengthened with an eye to increasing respect and empowerment.

I am referring here to the ground-breaking work by Drs. Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd who developed the model of a “conversation for action” that embodies a new pattern of communication between work colleagues.  First of all, each work conversation begins with a “request”.  Not an “assignment” that presumes a one-up and one-down relationship between the parties, but a “request” which acknowledges from the start the mutual dependency and the associated respect due to the performer.  Just using the words “can you. . .” changes the mood of the whole work delivery conversation.

The second stage of the conversation is equally powerful.  The performer is provided the opportunity, as a respected equal, to “negotiate” their response to the request.  The performer is empowered to say what they can and cannot commit to.  No more just assigning a task with a person’s name on it and a due date.  Rather, an actual agreement with a performer who is empowered to respond with what they can accomplish by when.  Note, also, that providing this measure of autonomy to the performer is the quid pro quo for clarifying subsequent accountability for delivery.  Accountability is baseless without negotiation.  If the performer never has room to say no (i.e. decline a request), then how can you trust a yes?

The work conversation proceeds full circle with a clear delivery of the agreed outcome followed by the manager’s acceptance and praise or critique.  A successful cycle inspires the next one.  Trust, a key element of engagement, is built along the way from repeated cycles.

So, the next question is how do you instantiate these behaviors throughout the organization?

We believe technology can improve engagement by guiding and facilitating a “managed conversation” between requesters and performers.  4Spires has developed a new generation of social task management software that combines task and relationship management.  It goes right to the heart of the engagement question with a specific and tangible intervention that can change the conversation content and dynamics.  The software acts as a third party to the conversation by prompting the use of specific words and responses and by assuring explicit closure of the conversation.  The tool is an expression of new practices and new behaviors.  Helping individuals make and keep their commitments builds engagement.


Book Review – “Conversations for Action and Collected Essays” by Fernando Flores

First, I am impressed with how well the information in this book has stood the test of time. I might even go further and say that the material is more relevant in today’s work culture than it was 30 years ago when it was written. Our modern, technology-connected, but personally-disconnected life can certainly benefit from improving how we converse with each other. Dr. Flores offers an astute analysis of how we communicate, from the basic linguistic elements through an appreciation for background concerns, flow, moods, and trust. He deconstructs our everyday exchanges with other people into their essential elements and then constructs a compellingly simple model of the back and forth “dance” that goes on to achieve shared action. The “conversation for action” loop he developed 3 decades ago remains a powerful model for improving knowledge worker productivity.

In particular, I found the discussion of autonomy vs. accountability very relevant in the context of our current generation of workers. Along with shifts toward less loyalty to company and increasing worker mobility, we can sense a growing demand for increasing autonomy in how (and where) work is conducted. There are obvious benefits to this trend, including increased employee engagement and innovation, but maintaining efficient coordination may be more challenging. Adherence to the conversation for action model adds clarity and a modicum of rigour to work conversations that can make accountability explicit and visible. A growing number of case studies attest to the improvements in collaboration the model provides.

The book offers valuable insights like the following:

— We all make “characterisations” of others and of ourselves. We say “he is trustworthy,” “she is unreliable,” “I’m bad with numbers.” “These features are not real; they only exist in conversation…when we forget that characterisation is a conversation, we perpetuate our competencies and incompetencies, and those of others…grounded characterisations allow us to have productive conversations; these are conversations for moving forward together rather than staying stuck in the present.”

— Our background mood affects how we perceive the world and the people around us and how we behave. A person’s mood is driven by their vision of the future. “A common belief is that the future is basically an extension of what is going on today.” To manage moods, therefore, it is necessary to create a different understanding about the future. Dr. Flores suggests “the most important key to generating moods of challenge, confidence, and ambition is to understand that people create the future in the commitments they make to each other and the actions they take together…we invent the future together.” There is key information in this section for any group leader to consider.

— “Leadership is a phenomenon of the conversations of a team, not of an individual. A team participates in a set of ongoing conversations among people who commit to share an explicitly declared mission and to coordinate actions to fulfil the mission. The leader takes action to ensure that these conversations take place and that they are assessed by the team to be effective. The leader is the person who is granted authority by the team to take care of these conversations in an ongoing manner.”

— Language is central to being social. “We build networks of people with whom we participate in conversations.” These are not one-way messages like “take out the trash” or “do this task,” but rather two-way conversations in which two or more individuals share their background concerns, negotiate agreements for taking action together, and continuously develop a shared assessment of how the work and their relationship is progressing. These are the kind of principles we should be mindful of as we design modern work management systems.

Perhaps the gem of the whole book, however, is the last chapter “On Listening.” Using examples as seemingly far apart as a used car salesman and Lech Walesa, Dr. Flores presents an entirely new approach to the practice of listening. Exhibiting keen observation skills, the author exposes the mechanics of dysfunctional conversation patterns that are immediately recognisable and then presents a new model for listening that can achieve genuine engagement between people with entirely different backgrounds. We see how the traditional training on listening skills is flawed, and we learn an observable, but radically new way of participating in conversations that any reader can utilize and benefit from.

My one reservation with the book is that I was left wanting more examples of these principles in practice. The everyday examples in the book are used only for explanatory purposes. I think the book would have benefited from the inclusion of some case studies where the ideas made a difference. I know they’re out there…perhaps in the second edition?

4Spires launches CommitKeeper on Salesforce

4Spires is pleased to announce the launch of the newest version of our CommitKeeper product on the Salesforce platform.  This application offers a ground-breaking approach for improving coordination, visibility, engagement, and accountability across all types of team initiatives.  It closes the execution gap between strategy, tasks and results, and it takes collaboration to the next level.

Notable features in this version include the following:

    • New Request.  A simple form is used to make a request for a specific delivery from a performer/provider.  The request can be tagged in multiple contexts for later search and reporting.  This begins a dialog thread that documents the whole delivery cycle.  Socialize the task with the broader community by selecting multiple observers.
    • New Offer.  In addition to using the request form, a commitment to deliver an outcome/result/task by a certain date can also be initiated by the performer/provider making an Offer to a customer/manager/colleague.
    • New To Do.  Create a task for yourself within the same tags so that you have a truly comprehensive list of all the work items on your plate.
    • Supporting Requests.  Execution often involves a hierarchy of dependent tasks.  Delivering on a “parent” request depends on the successful completion of several “supporting requests” which may, in turn, depend on other “supporting requests”.  Visualize up-to-the minute status on the entire network of dependencies.
    • Suppress emails.  To minimize and control email “clutter”, system administrators can suppress email notices without affecting the Chatter stream.
    • Attach files.  Attach files to requests/tasks that seamlessly integrate with the Salesforce document library and version control features.
    • Integrates with CRM objects.  Requests and responses made in CommitKeeper automatically appear in the activity history of the related Salesforce objects (e.g. leads, opportunities, projects, campaigns, etc.).
    • Native and Aloha too.  Built with code native to the platform, the application fits right in to the user experience with no training required and feels like a “standard” platform utility.  Aloha status means the application does not count against limits imposed by which edition of Salesforce (i.e. Group, Professional, Enterprise, Unlimited) the customer is running.
  • Easy installation.  Just a few clicks and it’s done.

Find it on the AppExchange here.  Sign up for the free 30-day trial.  Please forward to your colleagues who may have interest.

Thanks for your ongoing interest and support.  More soon.

Bringing the Social Model to Human Capital Management

John Wookey, Executive Vice President, Social Applications at , published “Why Human Capital Management Really Needs a Social Model” on TLNT ( in the May 2, 2012 issue.

Without diminishing what John has written, I want to elaborate upon and recommend counterpoints and further enhancements to the general themes he espouses.  I will elaborate on five quotes from the article:

1.     “People-centric systems should promote connection, communication, and collaboration.  That is the core of the social enterprise”. 

At face value, this statement is true.  There are, however, various ‘flavors’ of connection, communication, and collaboration that offer and support alternate objectives.

As commonly practiced, the social enterprise advocates promote a one-to-many communication paradigm in which each individual broadcasts information out to everyone in the group.  Examples include:

  • Project team members share their personal goals with the whole team.
  • Individuals send out queries company-wide seeking help.
  • Shared document edits are seen by everyone.
  • Coworkers award badges to each other in an open feedback forum.

The benefits can be readily appreciated, but there are also limitations to these practices:

  • Participation can be spotty; some people participate a lot (sometimes too much), others not at all.
  • Kudos are happily awarded, while critiques are rarely entered.
  • Broadcasting needs and gathering input from a larger and larger social group has value, but social networks do a poor job coordinating work and actually taking action.
  • Groups tend to diffuse responsibility; information sharing is very different from accountability.
  • Too much sharing can challenge a healthy respect for privacy and appropriate confidentiality.

Lastly, due to its more random nature, a one-to-many forum produces little hard data from which to develop meaningful performance metrics.

Moving forward the most effective social enterprises will blend the one-to-many social paradigm with its newer counter-part, the one-to-one paradigm: two specific people having a focused interaction.  It is still about connection, communication, and collaboration, but at a granular level taking action involves a performer delivering some outcome to someone else who can assess the completeness and express specific satisfaction.

This dialog can be either private (visible only to the two parties) or open (visible to a broader group of interested parties).  The key principle is the authenticity and personal integrity of the two parties.  This emphasis is less freewheeling than the one-to-many paradigm, but this more disciplined communication drives greater intimacy and personal accountability by making commitments explicit and tracking each deliverable.  Accountability and engagement are made palpable, and tracking deliveries against commitments yields a wealth of actionable metrics.

2.     “Lack of meaningful information is the hallmark and curse of every legacy HR system.”

This comment is perhaps a bit overstated; though the point has merit.  I would urge, however, that while creating a social enterprise will render new information, the data’s meaningfulness has limits.  Tuning in to the social buzz around what has been called the ‘enterprise social water cooler’ can certainly provide a more real-time picture of employee concerns than a survey.  Employees can share comments and suggestions that may result in improved operations.  Badges awarded to colleagues can be accumulated at review time.

I submit, however, the inherent diffusion of a large social group, coupled with its anonymity and randomness of participation severely limits real meaningful metrics.

3.     “Making the [performance management] process collaborative – and allowing people to commit – creates and fosters a real dialogue across an organization.” 

I have spent years studying, and understanding the process and practices associated with making commitments.  Commitments are, indeed, what really drive actions.   But just making performance management ‘collaborative’ does not get stuff done.  Commitments can and, to be most effective, should be publicly shared, but the actual formation of a commitment is a person-to-person endeavor.  Some enterprises are certainly moving away from command-and-control practices and toward more bottom-up participation and engagement.  On the other hand, the actual process of making and tracking commitments, plus the feedback and metrics associated with delivering on those commitments, requires more discipline and rigor than is typically offered in purely social one-to-many dialogues.

4.     “Feedback should be open and collaborative…which results in transparency, trust, and alignment”. 

This observation is certainly overstated.  Sure, some feedback can be more open and it is fine to get kudos from colleagues in other departments, but other client-customer or manager-employee/performer feedback (one could even argue the most important feedback) should certainly not be done in an open forum.  And it is oversimplified to make the leap that open and collaborative communication automatically yields more transparency and trust.

5.     “A social HCM system still supports the creation of formal reviews and metrics-based assessments.” 

Yes, sharing goals with the group and accumulating badges and feedback from colleagues across the enterprise is a step beyond the old 360review process, but providing metrics-based assessment, not so much.

Meaningful metrics rely on facts that are documented and comparable.  The system for collecting data must be structured and consistent across the entire enterprise.  These are not typically the qualities of a purely social, one-to-many network.  The evolving complementary one-to-one social systems will add an important adjunct that can provide meaningful metrics.


The social enterprise is coming and with it comes a wealth of new opportunities. But, let’s include in our enthusiasm an appropriate understanding of the deeper practices and behaviors we all seek to transform, as well as the new communication structures that will actually support performance improvement.

Four Principles for a New Model of Accountability

Accountability, everyone wants more of it, from our political leaders and institutions, businesses, schools, work colleagues, and even our children. Our general understanding of the word, however, and how to acquire more is imprecise and shallow. This is particularly disappointing in the work place context because increasing accountability can indeed improve performance. This post explores the term and proposes a new perspective, based on four principles that can increase accountability.

Let’s begin with definitions and the current perspective. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines accountability as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” The Random House dictionary offers a different perspective defining accountability as “the state of being answerable: obliged to report, explain, or justify something.” It is noteworthy that in its common usage, both definitions emphasize a backward-looking perspective; i.e. holding someone accountable for something he or she did. Often there is also a punitive overtone. It comes down to tracking deliveries and due dates with the question:  “Did you do it, and if so, what are you going to do about it?” Going further, the term is associated with the notion of “accounting” as in checking the score and determining who’s going to pay.

These commonly held notions are actually counter-productive to building more accountability in the workplace. The underlying enforcement and punitive notions about accountability do not create the optimum mood with a prospective collaborator. We need to develop a new perspective about accountability based on four principles:

1)     Accountability is forward-looking.  Accountability should be agreed upfront and not assigned at the end. As a task or initiative is being planned, the parties involved should be talking about who is going to be accountable for each outcome or deliverable. The performer consciously and explicitly commits and accepts responsibility. 

The critical portion of the conversation is at the beginning where the commitment is formed.

2)     Accountability is based on willingness.  There is a critical distinction between being willing to accept responsibility and being obliged to perform a function or produce a deliverable. In an organization characterized by a command-and-control culture, the performer is “obliged” to accept responsibility for delivering an outcome. Accountability is foisted on the performer simply by virtue of their position relative to the requester (e.g. the boss gives the orders).  In effect, the senior person ends up saying “I’m holding you accountable…” This is not the optimum means to boost accountability. Real accountability comes from “the performer’s mouth”.

A performer willing to accept responsibility explicitly declares their commitment and says in effect “You can count on me.”

3)     Accountability is about the quality of the dialog.  Building on the dictionary definition: “the state of being answerable”, what is important is the “answer” from the performer. Instead of the more usual presumption of accountability, the dialog begins with an explicit request that needs to be met with an explicit response. A conversation ensues and a specific agreement about expected results and due date is crafted. Having responded directly to the request and committed to the outcome, the performer has, in fact, taken on the accountability for delivery.

The quality of the dialog between the parties is much more important than recording the assigned due date.

4)     Accountability involves negotiation.  The requester must acknowledge their dependency on the performer by providing an opportunity for an honest response. The performer answers by sharing their capabilities and concerns regarding the request. Commitments that evidence real accountability involve a level of disclosure and dialog that is typically not present when tasks are assigned. Most managers assign tasks and expect accountability to follow along as part and parcel of the assignment. In effect, they are saying “I am assigning you this task and holding you accountable for getting it done on time”. This is not a dialog, only a one-way statement. The performer has not actually “answered”. The performer has not made any personal or public ownership of the task. While we are all familiar with position-power simply “assigning” accountability, a superior approach is to afford the performer a genuine opportunity to negotiate a response to the request.

Negotiation strengthens commitment. 


Focusing on accountability can be an effective lever for improving organization performance.  Accountability drives execution. To be most effective, however, we need to replace the current enforcement and punitive notions about the word with a new perspective that keys on upfront dialog and making clear agreements.

Nine Part System for Effective Business Execution

What we have here is a failure to execute!

The biggest management problem today is not creating visions, nor developing strategic or tactical plans.  The real problem is the failure to effectively execute.  Balls get dropped, deadlines are missed, deliveries are half-done, priorities constantly change, projects overrun budgets, and initiatives do not get satisfactorily accomplished.  It is easy to see why.

We have an overload of messages and communication to wade through.  Communication about execution is not face-to-face or even in real-time but more and more conducted remotely.  Coordination is more difficult as organizations become more decentralized and matrixed.  As the need for collaboration increases, personal accountability is increasingly diluted and unclear.  True employee engagement is in decline.  A return to 20th century command and control hierarchy will not work, as today’s workforce wants and expects more influence over decisions that affect their day-to-day work, not less.  The solution is to deploy new practices and systems that improve execution while simultaneously creating more commitment.

Nine Aspects of Effective Execution Support Systems

A comprehensive approach to deploying practices and systems to support execution involves nine distinct aspects that can be grouped into three categories: Set Up for Success, Follow Through, and Feedback.

Set up for Success

Set up for Success involves four aspects that assure teams as well as individual members are aligned and in agreement with the desired outcomes.  If the task or initiative is missing certain elements or is poorly structured at the start, execution will be hit or miss.

  1. Goals – Much has already been written about the importance of linking individual team member goals with those of the overall enterprise and department. This provides each member with a clear “line of sight” up to the broader organization goals.  If tracked by the system, senior managers can also “look down” the chain of command to see activity and status of how goals are being accomplished in real time.
  2. Clear Requests – This is an underrated management skill.  It involves identifying an individual performer, explaining the context for the request, and then making a clear request that includes a specific due date and deliverable.  Priorities do not deliver, only due dates matter.
  3. Employee Engagement – In the context of the modern workforce command and control practices will no longer assure employee engagement in outcomes.  And neither does “drive-by” task assignments where managers dole out assignments without any real dialog with the intended performers.  Hierarchy is out; managers and employees now operate on a near-level playing field.  Managers need to learn to make requests and then gain individual commitment from each performer through a more peer-to-peer dialog.
  4. Accountability – This is more than getting a clear plan of who will do what by when.  The key to accountability is achieving a negotiated commitment by the performer.   For example, performers are given the option to make counter-offers to requests with alternate due dates or alternate deliverables.  The dialog concludes with the performer saying “you can count on me”.

Follow Through

It is surprising in this day and age to see what poor tools, policies and procedures companies, managers and even employees have for tracking project and task follow through.  Email, still the most prevalent communication system, is ill-equipped to handle structured follow up.  Project management tools track outcomes, but are generally “overkill” for tracking ongoing activities.  The practice of delivering should be much more explicit.  Effective follow through involves three aspects.

  1. Dialog during delivery – Forging an agreement to deliver an outcome by a certain date is not the end of the conversation, it is the beginning.  Stuff happens along the way, priorities shift, new information surfaces, problems arise.  A threaded dialog, in the context of the task, enables all parties to keep in close touch along the way with status updates and adjustments.   Relying on unstructured email messages in your in/out box does not work; new systems are needed to manage and present these conversations along with workflow to show who has the responsibility for the next action.
  2. Real time visibility into progress – A Gantt chart shows the task start and predicted end dates, but it does not provide any real-time visibility into the progress of the project or task.  Weekly status review meetings are fine for general department or project updates, but there is no need to experience a week-long time delay for resolving critical issues and updates.  Systems that provide immediate notice to all concerned parties of progress and issues enable earlier identification and resolution of issues that impact delivery dates.
  3. Explicit delivery and assessment – In lieu of sliding in partially complete outcomes over a soft due date, managers and employees need to “crisp up” the final stage of task completion.  Having made a clear agreement to deliver a certain outcome by a certain date, the performer should conclude the task by making an explicit delivery (i.e. “I am delivering what I said I would deliver.”).  The manager-requester is then obliged to explicitly accept the delivery and offer an assessment of their satisfaction level with the outcome.  Waiting to provide feedback until the year-end performance review misses innumerable opportunities for management, employee and overall process improvement.


No system is complete without feedback mechanisms that inform all participants and guide future performance improvements.  Organizational learning depends on feedback that is relevant and actionable.  All concerned parties need and expect to know “how are we doing” from a near term and long term historical organization and personal perspective.

  1. Scorecards/batting averages/metrics – Providing real time metrics indicating quantity and status of every commitment each individual is currently accountable for with the associated agreement for completion date enables better resource allocation.  Status and delivery statistics not only drive performance; they also drive trust.  The best systems provide measurement for performance of managers as well as team members (e.g. identifying managers who have a high rate of making requests and then canceling them may provide previously hidden opportunities for productivity gains).  Summary metrics that reflect a large number of specific delivery commitments (e.g. on time deliveries) can be incorporated into annual performance reviews.
  2. History to learn from – A historical record of “what went down” can benefit managers and employees by providing a comprehensive record of who-said-what-to-whom-and-when associated with a particular task/initiative.  By reviewing a series of past commitments, patterns of behavior emerge that can guide performance feedback with very specific, granular examples.  Moreover, organizing past deliveries in the context of whole projects can guide future improvements on a more macro scale.

When looked at closely, execution actually depends on a number of identifiable and interrelated factors that address setup, follow-through, and feedback.  Setting goals and conducting weekly follow-up meetings only scratches the surface.  Managers need to develop a better understanding of the many aspects of effective execution.  Better tools that support these aspects are in the Beta and customer-testing phase.