What Is Accountability?

Every had this question when assigning work:

“Do you want me to do the work, or do you want me to spend my time reporting on the work?”

If you’ve ever worked with engineers, programmers or other “High C” personalities you may have run into this before, but it could happen anywhere. Here is the proper response:

“Reporting on your work is part of the work.”

When I ask my clients what accountability means I get quite a variety of answers, some of which are entertaining. Here’s my perspective.

For any task, process, or project, high-performance accountability has several components:

1) One Person is Accountable

Only one person is ultimately liable for the correct completion of the task. If more than one person is accountable, then nobody is accountable.

Who is the champion? Who is the owner? The responsibility for actually doing the work may be delegated to somebody else. The accountable person may get help from somebody else, or need to coordinate multiple people and resources, but only one person can be accountable.

There can be only one.

2) Work is Measured

In my days as a project manager one of my favourite questions when nailing down the requirements for a system was: “How are we going to test this?” For example,

“…detect 95% of land mines in a dry field of size x, with y mines, distributed in pattern z, in clear summer weather in less than five minutes and with less than a 5% false positive rate…”

gives us fairly clear understanding of what is expected and a way to measure it.

You may end up debating why or why not your goal was reached, and you may argue about changing circumstances and contexts (like the real estate market collapsed), but you won’t be arguing if you did or didn’t meet expectations. This is where using SMART goals become useful.

Well defined measurements of the work also allow you to measure progress, which is a great way to motivate. Yea, having a coloured thermometer that shows how many widgets have been built or how close we are to reaching this quarter’s sales goals might seem a bit hokey, but it works. At least it works better than not doing it.

3) Progress is Reported

How do project become late? One day at a time.

When assigning work, the first thing I ask for is a schedule. Every project large or small needs milestones or even inch-pebbles that explicitly measure and report progress. That first milestone, having a schedule, is something I would expect to see the next day after assigning the work.

This avoids the 90% done 90% of the time problem. Also known as getting to the end of a six month project and realizing there’s still five months of work left to do. If you are accountable for a task, then you are responsible for reporting on progress of that task. This is also known as the “liability to render an account”. Hence “accountability”.

4) There Are Consequences

The last part of accountability is the obligation to bear the consequences of failing to perform as expected. This also means the obligation to celebrate success!

I’m not just talking getting fired here. Consequences run the gamut from small to huge. In poorly executing organizations there are seldom consequences for poor performance. Usually because there is nothing in place to measure performance, nor is it reported. In these instances mediocrity attracts more mediocrity.

For entrepreneurs, who sometimes roll pennies to make payroll, the consequences can be far beyond losing a job. They could lose their home, all their worldly goods, perhaps even a marriage with the failure of a business. The owner is ultimately accountable.

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