Category Archives: Accountability

5 Disruptive Practices That Boost Commitment

Talking is good; taking action together is better.  At the end of the day, what really matters and defines each of us on an individual, group and organization level is what was executed.  In any organization, all accomplishments are the result of individuals taking action together.  What a simplistic thing to say.

And yet, there exist many flaws in how we take action together.  People make vague requests.  Actual performers are unspecified.  Delivery dates are proposed without confirmation – if they are mentioned at all.  Agreements to deliver, when they are defined, shift and derail without a clear dialog between the person requesting or expecting an outcome and the performer(s).  Outcomes and deliveries are submitted willy-nilly.  Expressions of satisfaction, or not, with the delivery are absent.

Worse than these mechanical flaws, we are all familiar with the attendant interpersonal breakdowns.  Team members are silent about their cynicism toward the proposed requests.  Real engagement by employees is lacking.  People work on their favored assignments and leave other tasks to decay.  Low trust that deliveries will be met on time forces a need for backup systems and frequent check-ups by “management”.  Can we not recognize and acknowledge that the current model of working together is broken?

There is nothing in what I’ve just outlined that is unfamiliar to every reader.  We all have allowed (even colluded) in this “system” for a long time.  Isn’t it time to disrupt the existing system and try a new approach which provides results and benefits to all parties?  Let’s get back to basics and recreate our working relations around the golden rule:  “Say what you’re going to do, and do what you said”.

The core of this idea is making/remaking our work agreements personal.  Saying out loud, “I intend to accomplish the following by this date”, has powerful implications for both the speaker and the audience.

  • The speaker articulates their personal understanding of the desired outcome.
  • Accountability is taken on; the speaker has assumed ownership.
  • Giving voice creates commitment and in so doing discretionary effort is invoked to make good on the commitment.
  • Transparency builds trust.  Customer confidence is increased many fold.

The quality of the ensuing dialog between performer and customer moves from vague assumptions to clear agreements. Our word creates a bond with another person.  Personal honor and reputation are now at stake.

The following five simple, but profound, practices describe what such a system would actually look like:

(1)  Make requests and offers, not assignments. Clarify roles involved in this action – some one person is the performer and some one person will be recipient/customer for the delivery.  This practice is not limited to hierarchical roles; requests go down, up, and sideways throughout the organization.  This is the step that sets up the conversation for action between two people.  Others are/may be stakeholders and observers but let’s be clear on who is being asked, or who is offering, to deliver what to whom.  It’s personal!

(2)  Make clear agreements. Clarify expectations and negotiate commitments.  Say no if you mean no; unless you can say no, there is not the possibility of a committed yes.  This is the part about “saying what you’re going to do”.

(3)  Keep communications going between the requestor and the performer throughout the delivery stage.  Stuff happens along the way.  Agreements are not guarantees, but agreements must be honored.

(4)  Present the deliverable explicitly, i.e. the performer says “here is what I said I would deliver” or “this is why I could not deliver”.  This is the essence and evidence of accountability.

(5)  Last, but by no means least, the recipient/customer must acknowledge and assess the delivery.  Honesty and truth demand an assessment as to whether the delivery met the original expectations.  Answering the question – were you satisfied? – completes the cycle and assures closure.  This underutilized practice is the minimum quid pro quo to the effort of the performer and serves to represent the customer’s accountability to honor the agreement.  Moreover, these are often the “golden moments” when feedback can enhance both future performance and trust.


We have colluded to make task delivery conversations vague and impersonal.  Our common work practices are packed with inefficiencies that dilute personal accountability.  We need to get back to basic fundamentals by saying what you’ll do and doing what you say.

“Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done” – My Top Ten Quotes

In 2002 Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan authored a highly regarded management book entitled “Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done”.  The book was lauded by such notable business leaders as Michael Dell – CEO of Dell Computer, L.R. Raymond – CEO of Exxon Mobil, and Ralph Larsen – CEO of Johnson & Johnson.  To quote them, “Execution is the great unaddressed issue in the business world today.  Its absence is the single biggest obstacle to success and the cause of most of the disappointments that are mistakenly attributed to other causes.”

I found even the authors’ choice of title instructive.  The dictionary defines “discipline” as a regimen or set of rigorous practices that develops or improves a skill.  It goes without saying that execution does not just happen reliably without some discipline.  And yet most businesses today do not employ much rigor in getting things done.

Requests are vague, commitments by specific individuals to deliver outcomes by a certain date are vague and implicit, follow-up is haphazard, deliveries are not acknowledged and feedback is not aptly and concisely provided.  Execution fails not from lack of intent or bad planning, but from poor discipline.

The disciplines discussed in the book revolve around the notions of making and keeping clear commitments, clarifying accountability, having an honest and open dialog, and following through.  I have discussed each of these topics in other blog articles.  The following are my top ten quotes from their book:

  1. To execute well there must be accountability, clear goals, accurate methods to measure performance, and the right rewards for people who perform…
  2. Follow-through is a constant and sequential part of execution.  It ensures that you have established closure in the dialogue about who will be responsible for what and the specific milestones for measurement.  The failure to establish this closure leaves the people who execute a decision or strategy without a clear picture of their role.  As events unfold rapidly amid much uncertainty, follow-through becomes a much more intense process…
  3. When companies fail to deliver on their promises, the most frequent explanation is that the CEO’s strategy was wrong.  But the strategy by itself is not often the cause.  Strategies most often fail because they aren’t executed well.  Things that are supposed to happen don’t happen…
  4. Typically the CEO and the senior leadership team allot less than half a day each year to review the plans – people, strategy, and operations.  Typically the reviews are not particularly interactive.  People sit passively watching PowerPoint presentations.  They don’t ask questions.  They don’t debate, and as a result they don’t get much useful outcome.  People leave with no commitments to the action plans they’ve helped create.  This is a formula for failure.  You need robust dialogue to surface the realities of the business.  You need accountability for results – discussed openly and agreed to by those responsible – to get things done and reward the best performers.  You need follow-through to ensure the plans are on track…
  5. People engaged in the processes argue these questions, search out reality, and reach specific and practical conclusions.  Everybody agrees about their responsibilities for getting things done, and everybody commits to those responsibilities…
  6. Furthermore, while stretch goals can be useful in forcing people to break old rules and do things better, they’re worse than useless if they’re totally unrealistic, or if the people who have to meet them aren’t given the chance to debate them beforehand and take ownership of them…
  7. Clear, simple goals don’t mean much if nobody takes them seriously.  The failure to follow though is widespread in business, and a major cause of poor execution.  How many meetings have you attended where people left without firm conclusions about who would do what and when?  Everybody may have agreed the idea was good, but since nobody was named accountable for results, it doesn’t get done.  Other things come up that seem more important or people decide it wasn’t such a good idea after all.  (Maybe they even felt that way during the meeting, but didn’t speak up)…
  8. How many meetings have you attended where everyone seemed to agree at the end about what actions would be taken but nothing much actually happened as a result?  These are the meetings where there’s no robust debate and therefore nobody states their misgivings.  Instead, they simply let the project they didn’t like die a quiet death over time…
  9. Follow-through is the cornerstone of execution, and every leader who’s good at executing follows through religiously.  Following through ensures that people are doing the things they committed to do, according to the agreed timetable.  It exposes any lack of discipline and connection between ideas and actions, and forces the specificity that is essential to synchronize the moving parts of an organization.  If people can’t execute the plan because of changed circumstances, follow-through ensures they deal swiftly and creatively with the new conditions…
  10. Finally, robust dialogue ends with closure.  At the end of the meeting, people agree about what each person has to do and when.  They’ve committed to it in an open forum; they are accountable for the outcomes.  The reason most companies don’t face reality very well is that their dialogues are ineffective.  And it shows in their results.  Think about the meetings you’ve attended – those that were a hopeless waste of time and those that produced energy and great results.  What was the difference?  It was not the agenda, not whether the meeting started on time or how disciplined it was, and certainly not the formal presentations.  No, the difference was in the quality of the dialogue.

That last line bears repeating:  The difference that achieves great results is “the quality of the dialogue”.  In other articles I talk about how software applications can instantiate and enforce the discipline that is necessary to execute effectively as well as elevate the quality of the dialogue around getting things done.

Trust – What’s It Worth? (Reflections on “The Speed of Trust” by Covey and Merrill)

In 2006, Stephen M.R. Covey and Rebecca Merrill authored the book “The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything”.  The authors make a compelling business case for the real and quantifiable effects of building trust in organizations.  They state “When trust goes up, speed will also go up and cost will go down.”  The inverse is also true.  “When trust goes down, speed will go down and cost will go up.”  High trust organizations demonstrate less bureaucracy, lower turnover, enhanced innovation, and better execution.   Our modern global, knowledge worker economy revolves around partnering and relationships.  Covey goes on to assert that the ability to establish, grow, extend and restore trust with all stakeholders is the key leadership competency of the new, global economy.

The book discusses how trust can be built, or rebuilt, by improving thirteen relationship trust building behaviors.  The following are my comments on four of them: keeping commitments, practicing accountability, confronting reality, and delivering results.

1.)  Keeping commitments is what Covey and Merrill call the “Big Kahuna” of all trust-building behaviors.  While that may be self-evident, what is less obvious, and more interesting, is how rarely real commitments are actually formed in most business relationships.  In place of real commitments most people substitute loose, mostly implicit statements of  “Well, I’ll do my best” or “I’ll try”.  The reasons for this behavior are also obvious – the person being asked to do something wants as much “wiggle room” as possible within which to make the delivery so they will not disappoint the customer; and the customer, knowing this, does not want to press for a firm commitment.  Each of the parties is complicit in the vagueness: the performer fears non-completion and the customer fears confrontation.  The truth is in our modern business culture we stink at making commitments.  Most of the time commitments are vague or never actually made in the first place.  This is not to say that performing “best efforts” does not build trust, but forming and delivering on real commitments builds trust a lot faster and a lot better.

2.)  Practicing accountability is much more than honoring due dates.  Yes, practicing accountability entails saying what you’re going to do and doing what you said, but underlying the obvious is the nature of the dialog that is going on between two people.  A complete conversation between a requester and a performer with the power to really build trust depends on factors such as:

  • how well the request was formed,
  • whether the intended performer was given the opportunity to negotiate the terms of the delivery,
  • whether an explicit agreement was made,
  • the degree to which the dialog continued throughout the delivery, and
  • whether the delivery was formally acknowledged.

The quality of the dialog between the two parties is even more important than recording the assigned due date.  (See other posts that expand the discussion on Accountability)

3.)  Confronting reality often means sharing “bad news”.  The performer has the burden for demonstrating this behavior right from the start of the conversation with the requester.  While the request is being formulated and an agreement to deliver is being crafted, the performer is bound to forthrightly relay their concerns, problems, and contingencies so the requester has a clear sense of the expectations of the performer.

The performer should not accept a task they do not believe can be achieved.  Standing up for reality at the outset builds trust.  Must of us have run across counter examples of this – a work colleague who always agrees, although he knows he cannot do everything to complete the request.  Some components of the request will not be completed, not fully completed or completed on time and to the expectation of the requestor.  Sadly the requestor or customer will often not know this until very late in the game.  Through fear of being viewed as not a team player, or of losing his job, he believes he cannot say no up front.

Once an explicit agreement is forged, the subsequent delivery of “bad news” is even more important.  The project is properly planned, tasks have been assigned, and then, as we all know, s- – t happens.  It is common knowledge and more or less taken for granted that we learn more about the nature of the task after it has been taken it on.  That new information comes to light is not the issue.  The key to building trust is how quickly and clearly the new information is shared with the requester/customer.  Waiting to report problems until the Friday staff meeting builds far less trust than a private communication on Tuesday.

Effective software design can facilitate sharing “bad news” during the delivery stage.  Simple tools like red/yellow/green “traffic lights” enable the performer to quickly and easily signal concerns to the requester.  The goal is to prompt earlier and earlier notice of problems when working around “bad news” or changing plans is easier.

The manager/requester is as important to the entire process and shares the burden of confronting reality when it comes time to acknowledge and assess the delivery.   Performers learn very fast how much they can trust their manager by the consistency and honesty with which deliveries are assessed.  If it is good work, the message should be clearly and succinctly delivered – at the right time; conversely if it is not good work, the requestor/manager should provide in a proper dialog what was not satisfactory and how to improve on delivery and possibly help in the delivery for the next set of deliverables.. Trust is not built, and the organization does not learn, unless clear feedback is provided on whether the requester was satisfied with each delivery.

4.)  Delivering results is the natural outcome following from the above three behaviors.  The performer and requester have made a clear agreement, accountability is palpable and shared in the conversation, and each of the parties openly discuss in a straightforward manner any problems or concerns as they come up.

Note, however, that this behavior is about more than just completing the task by the agreed due date.  Sure, the baseline for measuring results is tracking that the task was completed on time, but one should consider a broader definition of what constitutes results.  In the context of this discussion, an additional result is the degree to which your “trust account” was added to or debited during the entire conversation.  There is also a virtuous cycle of trust – those you trust are monitored less closely (i.e. management productivity gain), their confidence builds, they feel more empowered, they perform better (i.e. staff productivity gain), and they earn more trust.

Delivering results on a consistent basis builds a reputation for trust.  The requester as well as the performer benefit from having a robust historical record of past deliveries.  Reputations should be built as much as possible on objective data, not subjective and imperfect memory.  It is surprising to note how few task and project management applications actually save records of completed deliveries that can provide this objective, historical view of deliveries.

In summary, work management applications that are sensitive to the issue of trust can effectively facilitate and encourage the practice of these trust-building behaviors.  Software can help individuals and organizations build trust – the one thing that changes everything.

Do People Really Want To Be Held To Their Promises?

If you are a reader of this blog, you know that we here at 4 Spires ( are promoting a new way of managing workflow through the enhanced dialog between a requester and a performer that improves accountability by making and tracking explicit commitments.  After a short period of reflection, most people inevitably come to the following question: Do I, or other people, really want to be held to our promises and/or commitments?  So let’s address this concern head-on.

There are several levels of response.  First of all, let’s grant that some people do and some do not want to be held to their promises (they also do not like or embrace stretch goals).  If queried, however, many people would report that working hard to deliver on a commitment was one of their proudest accomplishments.  There is no getting around the fact that making a promise to deliver creates a more compelling bond by the performer than most are used to.  From early childhood, we are taught that promises are special.  Nobody wants to make and then have to break a promise.  The truth is that this level of commitment is quite rare in today’s work world.  What is being advocated is uncomfortable because it is new and inserts an added “energy” into the conversation.  It is this “energy” that makes the difference and improves the likelihood of an on-time delivery.

But this discussion is not only about keeping agreements.  Sometimes there are very good reasons for not being able to keep agreements and these have nothing to do with the project or request itself.  The key is that having made a clear up front agreement, the performer will be more forthcoming about having to change it should the need arise.  This is so much different than the more common behavior we have all experienced where the performer provides a sort of “universal compliance” to all requests that are thrown at him, and then uses a form of “selective pocket veto” to drop some and deliver others.

Making explicit commitments and being “held” to them is new behavior for most of us.  Any new behavior creates resistance, even if we agree with its value to stretch people and get more done.  Moreover, whether anyone wants to be “held to my promise” actually has more to do with HOW the request is made versus WHAT the performer is being asked to complete and under what timetable.

Let’s extend the point and explore not just the mechanics of making and keeping promises, but also the sociological and interpersonal aspects.

There are always two people involved in a task related conversation – a requester and a performer. Requesters (think internal or external customers or managers) are interested in “extracting” promises from performers (think staff) they have requested a delivery from.   So even if the performer does not want to be held to their promises or commitments, in a sense, the requester can force the issue.  You could say the requester is enforcing a commitment to deliver, and one could reasonably expect some resistance, either overt or covert, from the performer.

While there are some managers who operate in a demand request mode, this is not the type of heavy-handed, top-down behavior that is being advocated here.  On the contrary, this misses the point entirely.  The point is to prompt a sincere, two-way dialog between the two parties during which an agreement is mutually forged.  The requester grants the performer “room” to make counter-offers or even to decline a request.  The dialog results in the performer willingly making an explicit promise they are fully committed to deliver.

Lastly, there is the issue of tracking, following-up and managing the outcome of the promise.  Here again, the key is NOT about “holding people to their promises” or about following up with the question “did you do it?” but about changing the quality of the dialog between the two parties.  Just because a performer has made a promise does not mean that the delivery will happen exactly as planned. Issues and problems still arise.  BUT, having made an explicit promise in the first place, the performer will be more motivated to notify the requester and renegotiate the delivery.

The real goal is not to “HOLD performers to their promises”, but rather to raise the conversation to an explicit level.

The 4 Spires team believes that one of the most important systemic benefits of the Managed Commitment approach will be that performers will find and report concerns and breakdowns earlier when adjustments to plans and resolutions are easier to accommodate.  Imagine for a moment how your projects would progress if the whole process of identifying and resolving breakdowns were accelerated.

Being “held to a promise” is not the point.  The point is to be having the right conversation in the first place.

Accountability (3 of 3): Sharing the Load

This is the third in a series of 3 articles dealing with Accountability.  In the first article Accountability: What Does it Really Mean? I noted how the real meaning of accountability has been hijacked and replaced with a simplistic emphasis on recording delivery dates, and I proposed that real accountability has more to do with the quality of the dialog between people.

The second article Accountability: How is it Achieved? keys in on this dialog and lays out four specific tactics for how accountability is actually built so that performers are really “carrying the ball”.

This final article in the series suggests that, in best practices, the accountability ball should actually be carried down the field by each of the parties – i.e. how the requester and the performer are each accountable to the other.

Accountability can be discussed in terms of a four stage dialog or structured conversation between a requester and a performer – formulating the request, negotiating a commitment, delivering the request on time and as expected, and acknowledging the delivery.  In varying degrees, each of the parties bears some accountability to the other in each of these stages.

  • In the first stage the requester is accountable, first and foremost, for formulating a clear request.  In my experience, it has been amazing to see how often managers botch this.  There is no clear formulation of the request; the responsibilities, the end results, and the timelines needed to complete the results are vague or missing altogether.  Assignments are doled out with little background context and imprecise expectations regarding what would constitute a satisfactory outcome. It is hard to hold the performer accountable for an incomplete delivery when expectations were not clearly understood and agreed at the start.  The performer, for their part, is accountable in this stage for learning the needs and the context of the requester and for getting a clear understanding of the request.  The performer should push to stay in this stage until a clear request has been formulated.
  • In the second stage, the performer has the lead role for accountability….This stage concludes when the performer explicitly agrees to deliver a certain outcome or result by a certain date.  The requester, on the other hand, should not let the conversation advance to the next stage until an explicit agreement has been forged.
  • In the third stage the performer is obviously accountable for delivering by the agreed due date, but that is not all.  The performer is also accountable for maintaining an ongoing dialog with the requester about how the request is proceeding.  Using best practices, the performer is regularly updating the requester about the “health” of the agreement.  Are we on track or has something come up that threatens an on-time delivery?  The performer is accountable to report problems or concerns as quickly as they come up and not wait until critical juncture points or until the due date has passed.  Any “bad news” is reported early by the performer.  The requester, on the other hand, is accountable to advise the performer if and when they become aware of any changes that affect the original context for the agreement.  If priorities change or new information alters or eliminates the need, the requester is bound to advise the performer immediately.  A good way to damage the relationship is to let the performer persist with a task that is no longer really needed.
  • The last stage of the conversation begins when the performer delivers on the agreement.  First of all, the performer should make the delivery explicit.  The performer is accountable for asserting their belief that they have successfully delivered the result that was agreed.  The requester, then, is accountable for acknowledging that delivery and advising the performer if they are satisfied.  It is surprising how rarely this last stage actually occurs in business.  More often, work just carries on from one task to the next with no explicit delivery by the performer and no direct acknowledgement and assessment by the requester.  Feedback is saved up and bundled into the end-of-year performance review.

When accountability is shared like this all kinds of good things happen.

To summarize, as pointed out in the first of these articles, accountability is really about the quality of the dialog between the two parties, NOT about tracking due dates.  Now, to be candid, conversations like this are not easy.  As I will discuss in an upcoming article, conversations like this require a measure of courage and trust on the part of both parties.  Each of the parties is accountable for establishing and maintaining this direct and more “intimate” dialog.  When you are in a conversation where real accountability is palpable you will know it, and conversely when you are in a conversation without it, you will also know it.

Accountability (2 of 3): How is it Achieved?

This is the second in a series of 3 articles dealing with Accountability.  The first article Accountability: What Does it Really Mean I noted how the real meaning of accountability has been hijacked and replaced with a simplistic emphasis on recording delivery dates, and I proposed that real accountability has more to do with the quality of the dialog between people.

This article keys in on this dialog and lays out four specific tactics for how accountability is actually achieved.

While most everyone acknowledges that accountability is a good thing and want more of it, most people really do not know how to get more.  All too often we fool ourselves into thinking we have more of it by emphasizing the other roots of the word – counting and accounting – which leads one to pursuit of monitored assigned due dates.

Below are recommendations for building real accountability:

  • Begin a conversation, not a delegation. The proper start to a conversation that results in real accountability is a request (e.g. Can you get this done by June 1st?).  The requestor / manager assumes the persona of a customer instead of “lord and master”.  The requester begins with a different tone of voice, and acknowledges that the performer is already working on other tasks.  The phrase “Will you please…” gets someone ready for a response; the phrase “You need to…” raises hackles.  Having started the conversation with a question, instead of a statement, the requester must then wait for an answer before proceeding.  A measure of control is relinquished over to the performer.  It’s a dialog after all, not a monologue.
  • Acknowledge mutual dependency and build partnership. There is no accountability without negotiation.  The performer must answer including sharing their capabilities and concerns regarding the request.  Commitments that evidence real accountability involve a level of disclosure, and indeed intimacy, that is typically not present when just assigning tasks.  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 am holding you (the performer) accountable for getting it done on time”.  This is a one-way statement, not a dialog.  The performer has not actually “answered”.  The performer has made no personal, nor public ownership of the task.  The manager has created a workflow / action and expects tacit acknowledgement and agreement.  In a subtle sense, the accountability for completion of the task still rests with the manager who then must spend his time closely following up the assignment.  In order to accept accountability, the performer must be afforded the opportunity to negotiate, or even to decline, the request.
  • Shift accountability squarely to the performer. The result of a proper dialog should be an explicit agreement, a specific commitment by the performer to satisfy the requester’s concern by a certain due date.  In so doing, the performer [willingly] takes on the accountability for timely and successful delivery of the request.  And having done so, it is now the performer’s responsibility, not the manager’s, to closely track and follow up the task. The ownership of the task has shifted to the performer.  Of course, the manager / requester is still concerned with an on-time delivery, but rather than relying on frequent reviews of task due dates and the weekly “how’s it going” query of each performer, the manager now relies on the performer’s ownership of the task to prompt update reports.  If the delivery is on track, the manager need not ask.  If the delivery is threatened, the manager relies on prompt notice of a problem by the responsible performer.  The key is to shift the dialog from the requestor saying “I am holding you accountable” to the performer saying  “you can count on me”.  Underpinning all of this is the notion of trust, which leads to the next practice.
  • Provide metrics that support reputation and trust building. Accountability and trust go hand in hand.  Trust is the soft underbelly of accountability. [Note: See the related article on Trust.]  The greater the amount of trust, the greater is the shift of accountability to the performer.  Requestors who have low trust that the task will be delivered on time spend a considerable amount of time monitoring and following up many times during delivery.  Those with a high level of trust will spend relatively little time following up, and will instead rely on the trusted performer to alert them if and when concerns arise.  There is also a virtuous cycle of trust – those you trust are monitored less closely, their confidence builds, they feel more empowered, they perform better and earn more trust.

Trust is built up over time.  Repeated performance builds a reputation.  Both the requestor and the performer need to have specific historical records that are shared so that trust can be built and maintained using actual documented records.  The record keeping that is most helpful is historical delivery patterns such as percent of on-time deliveries over the past year.  Reports like this are surprisingly rare in today’s performance conscious work world.

The next article in this series talks about how accountability is actually shared between the requester and the performer.

Accountability (1 of 3): What Does It Really Mean?

This is the first in a series of 3 articles dealing with Accountability: What Does It Really Mean, How Accountability is Achieved, and finally Understanding How Accountability is Shared.

Accountability Defined: It is about dialog, not due dates

Accountability is a funny word. Though everyone thinks accountability is a good thing and wants to have more of it, few people really understand what it is and how to improve or implement accountability. The word has an appealing, high-minded ring to it, but its meaning is imprecise and not well understood.

Interestingly, the dictionary defines accountability as “the state of being answerable: obliged to report, explain, or justify something.” It is mostly about the dialog between two people and less about being responsible for completing a delivery.

Accountability fundamentally applies to a conversation between a customer or requester and a performer whom they have requested a service from. The customer desires to “hold the performer accountable” for completing the delivery. In most business relationships, however, this sense of accountability is actually implicit and weak. Executives and managers make requests of their staff and colleagues and want to hold them accountable for satisfactory delivery. But the conversation surrounding the request is vague and (deliberately) imprecise. If queried, each party to the conversation would probably concur that a measure of accountability was present in their relationship though neither directly spoke or committed to a timetable or the output / results. The performer wants to preserve as much “wiggle room” for the satisfactory delivery as possible, and the requester does not feel comfortable pressing for a formal commitment.

Thereafter the notion of accountability devolves into an accounting exercise. Software solutions that purport to address/improve accountability are merely systems for entering and reporting on due dates.
Most people think of managing accountability as a monitoring and enforcement approach “I will keep good track of all the assignments I have made to other people so I can hold them accountable later”. There are three fundamental concerns with this notion of accountability.

• First, it has a very top-down, autocratic approach where the emphasis is rooted in a heavy “did you do it?” question. Enforcement is implied and the underlying punitive nature is undeniable. This is obviously not the mood one would wish to create with a partner or collaborator. Small wonder then that neither the performer nor the customer really wants to explicitly talk in these terms. Moreover, the relationship being built between the two parties in this way is not felt as at all egalitarian; one is up and one is down. This mood certainly goes against the grain of the sensibilities prevalent in the modern work force.

• Secondly, this approach is one-sided. The customer is the one keeping track. There is no explicit response from the performer, “no catching the ball”, as it were, that has been tossed to them. The manager does all the checking and following up. The actual burden of managing the accountability is on the customer / requester.

• Lastly and most importantly there is little evidence that such accounting actually leads to improved performance. Just monitoring due dates does not increase on-time deliveries.

A better notion of accountability draws from its actual definition around the term “answerable”. What is important is the “answer” from the performer. The quality of the dialog between the parties is WAY more important than recording the assigned due date.

This dialog starts 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. [Note: The explicit nature of this conversation presumes that all parties have sufficient courage to engage honestly with each other. Courage is an essential aspect to requesting and negotiating. Honesty should not be taken for granted. The need for interpersonal courage will be discussed in a future blog.] However, the conversation does not stop there and “wait” for the due date to arrive. On the contrary, the conversation, thus started, continues throughout the delivery period during which both parties stay in close touch about progress toward the due date. Having responded directly to the request and committed to the outcome, the performer has, in fact, taken on the accountability for delivery.

The implicit dialog of the manager saying “I am counting on you to deliver …” has been replaced with the performer saying “You can count on me…”. The performer has “caught the ball” and is obliged to keep the customer up-to-date on any news or concerns that might threaten the completion of the request. The burden of accountability has shifted to the performer which is where it really belongs. This shift has a profound effect on improving organization performance.

In the next article, I will continue this discussion with some specific tactics for how to build accountability that leads to improved performance.