Why Accountability Is So Muddled – And How To Un-Muddle It

Why Accountability Is So Muddled – And How To Un-Muddle It

12.17.13Ron Ashkenas

The reality of organizational life is never black and white

One of the most sacred tenets of management is the need for clear accountability. As such, organizations spend enormous amounts of time and energy defining jobs, roles, and goals – and then figure out who to reward or punish when things go well or poorly. The assumption of course is that people will perform more effectively if they know exactly what they are supposed to accomplish and what will happen if they make or miss the target.

But the reality of organizational life is never quite so black and white. More often than not, accountability is muddled, rewards are misapplied, consequences are watered down or never occur, and people do not see the direct connection between results and recognition. As the senior manager of a large technology firm said to one of my colleagues: “If you work hard and get good results here, you’ll be rewarded; and if you don’t work hard and get mediocre results, you’ll also be rewarded.”

From my experience, there are three common reasons that organizations fall into accountability traps like these.

The first is the complexity of your organization’s structure. Most companies have some version of a matrix, with a combination of enabling “functions” (such as IT, HR, and Finance) and line business units. In many cases there are further distinctions between “head office” and “field” units, and multiple levels of geography-based teams (regions, districts, countries). Trying to nail down accountability across these structures is extremely difficult, especially when each one has its own budget and priorities. In a large healthcare company, for example, the person technically accountable for a major customer has to work with the leaders and staff of at least six other organizational units, many more senior than her, in order to get anything done. This makes it virtually impossible to hold either the customer-leader, or any of the other unit heads, accountable for results.

Compounding the complexity of the organization structure is the fact that work processes are constantly evolving, and cut across different units. Because of these upstream and downstream interactions, it’s often difficult for people to know whether their actions have impact, or how changes in one part of the workflow will impact others. As a result, it’s easy for managers and employees to say that they did their jobs well, and any problems must have been caused somewhere else.

Finally, the third and most significant reason for fuzzy accountability is that people work hard to avoid it. There’s truth in the old saying, “Success has many parents, but failure is an orphan.” Managers are quick to take credit for good results, but are often reluctant to accept responsibility for failure. This is especially true in cultures that blindly punish people for missing their numbers, trying things that don’t work, or delaying deadlines in the face of other pressures. To avoid career-limiting consequences, managers go through all sorts of gyrations to diffuse or re-direct accountability, such as: blaming others, referring to circumstances outside their control, shifting resources to other areas, reorganizing, changing measurements mid-stream, or any number of other creative deflections. As a project manager once told me, “We can use one snowstorm for many months as an excuse for being late with our deliverables.”

So yes, accountability is difficult to nail down. But it’s not impossible. Start out by doing the following:

First, try to understand the reasons for unclear accountability. Use the reasons above as a starting point for a discussion with your team and your managers. Identify the cultural patterns that characterize your organization and think about ways to overcome them.

Second, make it clear who is accountable for what and how results will be measured. Make sure you set these rules before starting any cross-functional assignment. At the same time, communicate the upside of success and the downside of failure, so no one needs to guess what will happen.

Third, appoint process champions. Especially for activities that cut across different parts of the company, process champions will have end-to-end responsibility for achieving the desired metrics. These are difficult roles to play since they often come without full authority for all of the resources, but they are a step in the direction of single accountability for dispersed activities.

Almost all organizations talk about the importance of accountability, but making it happen isn’t so easy. What’s your experience?

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