Accountability Making It Real

Accountability in business is essential but it is very hard to do well. All high performance teams make sure everyone is accountable and everyone knows what they are accountable for which makes them happier and everyone is much more successful.

In this post I’d like to share with you my experience in how I made myself more accountable which resulted in everyone around me being more accountable. If you achieve this transformation your customers will love it, your team will be much more empowered and fulfilled and that will drive revenue and profits this in turn will delight your shareholders.

How did I do this?**

I recruited everyone around me and asked them to pull me up if I did not do what I had committed to them that I would do! Most people are not gullible. They know when you lack authenticity. Accountability is all about what others can see. Saying what you plan to do and doing it builds authenticity. Actions and observable behaviours consistent with your commitments build credibility. Predictability in your behaviour builds trust. If people do not trust you they will not hold you to account.

The board of a company holds the executive to account to ensure that Management does what management has committed they would do. The actual behaviours and observable activities of a team become the values of that team, they ultimately create the values of their organisation. Being accountable is an essential ingredient of any successful culture.

Why do I place so much importance on accountability?

When I was 10 years old I dreamed of winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games. At 12 I began training with Percy Cerruty who trained Herb Elliott to win the gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960 and Percy worked with me to develop a training programme to turn my dream into a goal. I did not go to the Olympics but in striving to achieve my goal Percy engrained in me that to turn dreams into goals demanded being personally accountable for the outcome!

Why is accountability important?

One of my IBM managers was an excellent judge of what to do and what to avoid doing. He liked a good life and time to enjoy it. So working on things that added no value seemed pointless to him and he didn't do many things others did by habit. He gave me advice that 33 years later I still remember if we divide up who is accountable then we will argue about who is responsible for getting the result. Accountability is like being pregnant you can't be half pregnant and you can't be half accountable.

Accountability in a high performance culture is everyone taking on 100% and being accountable for the result. Accountability is like a chain it has to connect person to person. There has to be real clarity around who has influence and who is influencing how things get done and why. Who is responsible for achieving which outcomes and who has control over the necessary resources to achieve those outcomes all this has to be understood by everyone in the team. If every team member knows the decisions and understands the reasons for allocating resources to achieve particular outcomes and if everyone knows how those desired outcomes achieve the overarching strategy for the business individual decisions taken every day ought to make sense, to everyone.

I was involved in one company where I kept hearing that the culture was a bit toxic, people always pushed decisions up to senior executives who micromanaged and allowed people to blame others when deadlines were not met. Difficult decisions were put off. So there was a feeling of helplessness of not being empowered.

We addressed this situation by setting clear accountabilities with the CEO and cascading those accountabilities down through out the company. The board asked management to take the strategic plan and identify all the goals and timeframes in the plan along with all the resources required to achieve those goals and work openly with everyone in every team so they became accountable, together for the goals and effective use of the available resources to achieve those goals. If the budget was wrong find that out upfront never allow excuses when something has failed. By being open by being very clear about the goals so when everyone holds everyone else accountable for what they have signed up to, success is much more likely.

A culture of accountability is achieved when everyone feels empowered and in control of their destiny. An open and honest sharing of the plan, rewards and verified evidence of achievement is the only way I know of doing this. Celebrate each and every success so that we all know that we are executing the agreed plan well. Teams go from being reactive and helpless to being purposeful and empowered when they are given the expected resources, goals and time to achieve them.

Poorly performing companies don’t walk the talk

Shit happens. A customer does something unexpected, a critical team member resigns or a competitor knocks off your best and biggest customer. When bad stuff happens in a poor company no one is ever accountable. It’s always someone else fault. The leadership looks outside of the company for reasons as to why they are in this predicament. The culture in a failing company is subdued, its insular and lacking in energy. The leaders in a poor company are always coming up with a new plan to make it different. Often before the previous plan has had time to take effect and they never explain why the old plan didn’t work and what is really different about this plan and why it has a real chance of working. Poor managers of course produce the plan without being open, with out involving and engaging everyone in gathering the evidence to create the foundations for the new plan. In this environment decisions are always pushed up as is blame pushed up. It’s easy for the team to say “it’s not our fault!” In a poor company everyone feels helpless to do anything about the situation.

Creating a high performance highly accountable team

There is no silver bullet. There is no one formula. Without real accountability there is never a high performance company. People are complex, they are all different but good managers work through these differences and when they understand them they can work with their people to build a clear plan that is understood by everyone. With a clear plan where everyone know their goals, know the resources at their disposal and the timeframes they have agreed to achieve the outcomes, where nothing is hidden with everyone knowing what they have committed to do, where everyone knows why they are doing it, everyone knows how they will do it then it will not be long before the world knows what they do because they will be successful because they are accountable as is everyone around them.

When things change as they will inevitably do the change is explained and everyone knows how the plan has also has to be changed. The accountabilities must remain relevant and verifiable and not just explained away because a commitment has not been delivered. There are no magic puddings and when things change there are real consequences. Rewards attached to particular results must change when the results change, positively or negatively. Back in 2001 after the DOT COM crash many of my employees were sympathetic that we had lost 40% of our revenue that profits were smashed but too many came into my office with plausible, reasonable reasons why they had done a good job and that they should still get their full bonus. I learned to say reasonable reasons will kill me.

However when results have been well celebrated and when the culture of the company is to be open and accountable everyone in the team sees that the rewards are appropriate for the achievement of the company, the team and all the individuals then adversity can be overcome.

You need to experiment

In the late 1990’s Acumentum experimented with transparent goal setting and shared team management. We talked about self-managed teams. Innovation flourished and quality work was done. Good things got better but when things went wrong if there wasn’t universal and immediate agreement on what to do things just didn’t get addressed. Bonuses became more equally shared and tough decisions avoided. That experiment ultimately failed.

I read with interest a few months ago, tech firm Tree­house Island tried the same experiment in 2013, under co-founder and CEO Ryan Carson, staff could choose to work four-day weeks, pitched in only on projects they liked, and had no direct bosses. The experiment failed because according to the CEO "There’s no real reason to push hard because no one knows about it.” It turns out that everyone wants someone to tell them they are doing a good job.

Another experiment worth looking at is Value Corporation the billion dollar game company that produced the games platform Steam. They have produced an internal market place mechanism for measuring employees value and participation in project teams. Check out this link for Russ Roberts fascinating hour long interview with the economist in residence at Valve Software recorded 25 February 2013.

I found the idea of investing heavily in the recruitment process only hiring the most talented employees and then using their induction process to introduce each new recruit to project teams and give them the opportunity to pitch their own projects to other employees. Then at the end of the induction process if they haven’t been invited to join a team or haven’t recruited other employees to commit to their project then they are asked to leave!

It’s not just about the data it’s about people!

Accountability is not just about data and facts it’s about getting results and that means it’s about people. It’s about creating better ways of working, learning and living. Creating a high performance culture is about the way a company engages its people to set the goals, to commit to achieving those goals with the resources available in the timeframe agreed. It’s about sharing the rewards equitably but in such away that people feel good about themselves and their organisation.