Accountability is a word that gets tossed around a lot in the business world these days. Unfortunately, most of what I hear revolves around the lack of accountability rather than how companies are winning by holding each other accountable.
At the organizational level, accountability is all about creating a culture where the right things get done, on time, consistently. In cultures with real accountability, people say they’re going to get something done and they do. Associates expect each other to uphold their commitments, and also expect managers to follow up on actions promised with themselves, colleagues and customers.
Making Accountability Work
When attempting to restore or enhance accountability, most leaders mistakenly start by defining the tasks people need to be held accountable for. Instead, the first step should always be defining (with specificity) the expectations for individuals, teams and the company as a whole. This requires defining the target or objective so clearly that it minimizes the interpretation of the outcome or result.
So start by defining the desired outcome or result as clearly as possible. What does your organization’s destination need to be? Where are you going and what will it look like when you get there (defined in ways that matter and mean something to everyone – well beyond just the financials)? Get your team focused on achieving the right outcomes and using their brains to ponder, explore and determine the necessary actions or tasks.
Next, decide who will do what, by when, with what resources. Then ask, “How does this get us closer to winning as a company or a team?” Make sure someone has clear ownership of every significant initiative or task. Even when a team is involved, you still need one person to be individually accountable to create the necessary line of sight, peer pressure, and follow-up.
When identifying the target, clarify the current state as well as the end state, as this creates a critical baseline that enables measurement of progress or achievement of milestones. Then assign the necessary resources to get it done.
Closing the Accountability Disconnects
One of the biggest disconnects in accountability management involves assigning resources and responsibilities when you don’t have clarity around the outcome. Without carefully assessing the gap between where you are now and where you want to go, it’s impossible to accurately allocate the right amount of time, money and resources to get things done. When the outcome isn’t clear, organizations often discount what it will take to get there. When things don’t go as planned, they tend to give up, stop following up, and start behaving in a manner antithetical to accountability.
Accountability also requires ongoing feedback. People need to hear what they’re doing well, not so well, and how they can improve. But this rarely happens unless you have formal systems and processes in place for making it happen.
To nurture accountability, feedback must become a way of working every day versus a seldom used and often-awkward management responsibility. Additionally, effective feedback always compares actual performance to excellence or the desired state, thus reinforcing the importance of defining winning from the beginning.
Keeping your definition of winning a secret – either on purpose or by default – does not support a culture of accountability. Instead, clarify and constantly communicate it so people never lose sight of it. Make it visual, make it transparent, and regularly post progress made toward the destination. This ignites the competitive spirit and desire to win in most people, and is one of the fastest ways to prompt their brains to think about something.
Get creative! Use bar charts, graphics, logos, icons, internal tag lines – anything that keeps people focused on the goal. Change the visuals every 30 days to continually prompt people’s brains and prevent the message from getting lost in the daily avalanche of visual stimuli.
Finally, measure results using both qualitative and quantitative data. This helps to lessen uncertainty while keeping people’s brains focused and engaged on what you want them thinking about. It also helps minimize the MSU (making stuff up) that goes on in any system. Since MSU is usually negative, providing ongoing feedback will fill people’s brains with information that reflects actual reality rather than their different interpretations of it.
Every business wants a culture of accountability. The difference is that winning organizations don’t just make accountability a priority; they make it a way of life!
Call to action: Have each member of your management team rate the level of accountability in your organization. Then discuss the gap between where it is and where you need it to be and define who will do what, by when to get it to where you want it.