Organizations depend upon accountability systems to make things happen. Basing performance reviews upon employees’ ability to meet specific goals offers a clear-cut way of rewarding them for a job well done. More often, however, accountability focuses on assigning blame when things don’t go well.
Even worse, most accountability systems emphasize individual performance—an outdated paradigm in the modern business world, which relies on high-performing teams for successful outcomes. In other words, individual employees can nail all their performance metrics under a traditional accountability system, but the larger organization can still lose.
A pharmaceutical company had brought in the Matrix Management Institute to help create and launch a customized training program. Throughout the planning process, the project leader refused to accept personal accountability for the actual adoption and success of the program. He had no control over other colleagues’ decisions to attend training sessions and would not accept responsibility for the ultimate outcome. Without a means of securing training participation, the inadequate accountability system jeopardized the organization’s chances of recouping the six-figure investment in developing the program.
This example shows the danger of using an accountability system that focuses on tasks instead of outcomes. If the system drives individual goals first, then employees will optimize their personal performance at the expense of the organization.
Another issue with traditional systems is that it’s difficult to pinpoint accountability in today’s complex organizations. Matrix organizations—typically, any entity consisting of 50 or more people—usually centralize support services like accounting and marketing to serve an array of products and/or services. Companies with multiple locations or that operate in different geographic areas face even greater challenges.
Consider the example of a large service corporation with a national footprint that includes its headquarters, a handful of regional offices, and dozens of branch locations. An account manager who is responsible for overall service delivery to a national client must navigate across the system, at multiple levels, to meet that client’s needs. When a responsible party depends on so many other players to accomplish his or her goals, assigning accountability becomes difficult.
Within this complex environment, many projects and processes are cross-functional, requiring close cooperation from multiple departments or functions. Most accountability systems rate employees on their personal contributions, which encourages people to focus on their specific job responsibilities—often at the expense of the larger team. Furthermore, this myopic perspective prevents employees from seeing how their actions affect other team members in other departments. Prioritizing discrete components—like the training or IT function—over the overall organizational performance leads to unhealthy competition and inefficiency. Plus, individual accountability doesn’t allow for the inherent interdependencies in today’s complex world.
A consulting firm, for instance, undertakes an initiative to develop a new client portal. The project team includes a manager who is responsible for producing thought leadership and employee training manuals. Now, her team must also document how to use the new system. When the documentation assignment affects the manager’s ability to deliver marketing and training materials, she seeks guidance from her boss, whose own performance review depends on timely publication of the latter. Can you guess which project receives priority?
As seen above, accountability can be tricky to pin down because of the number of players involved. Compounding this challenge is the fact that avoiding accountability has evolved into an art form in some circles. One executive recalled her days as a site manager, when weekly “accountability calls” taught her that nine excuses would absolve her of guilt. Providing fewer excuses would incur yelling; citing more than nine wasted her time.
Too many organizations follow the demoralizing practice of emphasizing accountability after the fact. Something has gone wrong—missed deadlines, quality control issues—and leadership is looking for a scapegoat. Chances are excellent that no one person or department holds full responsibility, and focusing on blame, rather than solutions, does nothing to prevent similar failures in the future. Instead, this reactive approach to accountability only encourages various forms of deflection, from delegation and finger-pointing to old-fashioned excuses.
A Better Way
The underlying issue comes from the fact that most accountability systems rely on authority. Individuals are held responsible for those people, functions or tasks determined to fall under their “control,” but this system has two inherent flaws.
- A person can only control him- or herself—not the actions of others. A leader can coerce or cajole team members, but each one must ultimately choose whether or not to comply.
- Even when an individual does not have direct reports (and, thus, can control his own actions), this accountability system prioritizes personal performance over the organization’s goals.
Accountability systems need to accommodate the complexities of modern organizations. Since it’s rare for any one person to control an entire process, the authority-based model needs to be replaced by something that supports today’s interdependent world: commitment.
In the outdated accountability model, leadership dictates marching orders to team members, with the expectation that employees meet these commitments. This control-based approach rarely considers competing priorities that might prevent team members from fulfilling these commitments. It does not include proactive planning to address risk assessment and contingency planning. Neither does it engage employees in the outcome of the larger initiative. In short, by failing to provide the tools that people need to deliver desired results, this accountability system undermines its sole purpose of driving successful projects.
Accountability systems need to respect the roles and contributions of each stakeholder, allowing individuals to own the commitments they make. This shift—where employees have an active, empowered role in projects—starts when planning an initiative. Rather than assign tasks based on an approved plan, leaders should invite team members to build the plan with them. This co-creation process removes the pressure of expecting either one person or a handful of people to develop the optimal solution to achieve a desired result. By involving all stakeholders in planning, teams can arrive at a strategy through healthy debate and consensus.
The leader’s role changes from dictator to facilitator. She no longer faces the impossible challenge of having all the right answers. Instead, her job is to encourage all participants to share their insight and expertise. This process generates a wide range of options, which the team evaluates to determine the best course of action. Such collaborative planning allows groups to see, and plan for, the many interdependencies of modern workflows. Team members become aware of how they contribute to the shared vision. This broader perspective helps create a set of common goals and priorities, while the collaborative process enables participants to negotiate deadlines for their respective deliverables, based on capacity. As a result, co-creation secures buy-in and commitment from employees up front; everyone understands who is accountable for what and when.
Because so many business processes and projects span functions, accountability systems need to reflect this reality. Overreliance on individual accountability is a key failure of traditional systems. With shared accountability, everyone has “skin in the game.” The collective outcome is more important than individual performance, although individuals still retain accountability for specific deliverables. At the team level, members are accountable for the group’s collective performance, and leaders have individual accountability for the success of the team. This same dynamic applies to sub-teams: the sub-team leader has individual accountability for that team’s performance, and those members are accountable to the team.
Leaders at every stage need to make it clear at the beginning that everyone shares accountability for team results. Then, they need to create an environment that supports these joint efforts, one that facilitates the following:
- Communication. Keeping everyone informed throughout the project lifecycle eliminates surprises. Members should let the team know if they cannot complete a deliverable, if they have time to assist other team members, if they have concerns, etc. Team meetings need to be a safe space where employees can speak openly.
- Cooperation. Personal feelings should not interfere with team performance. Each member needs to put aside differences and help his or her colleagues achieve the shared outcomes. After all, everyone’s success depends on the team results.
- Collaboration. Collaboration does not end with the co-creation process. Throughout the course of the project, team members should continue to share plans, challenges, and solutions. This unified group effort keeps everyone focused on the shared vision and secures buy-in and support at each stage.
While accountability continues to play a key role in organizational effectiveness, today’s complex environment requires a shift from individual performance to team-based results. Similarly, leaders’ responsibilities need to shift from attempting to manage team members—including those over whom they have no authority—to creating a collaborative environment that supports their collective success. Commitment-based accountability systems offer an empowering model to improve project management and strategy execution, one that engages employees and allows organizations to harness the creative potential of their human resources.