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The Accountability Paradox

December 2, 2017


If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a leader say, “We need to hold people accountable”, I would have… a big boxful of nickels.

The process starts with asking the tough question: Just what are your people accountable for?

It sounds easy: Lydia’s accountable for sales. Bogdan is accountable for production. But before you can hold people accountable, you need to do two things. You need to be able to measure the outcomes of each task or function, to ensure you can actually determine success. And you need to be sure these people actually control the decision-making related to the objectives they’re accountable for.

These are systems that all successful companies should have in place to ensure they continue to thrive as they grow. But in my experience, few companies have the patience to do so. Building the right systems is demanding, detailed work. But those companies that don’t master the accountability paradox give up their ability to tie inputs to output. They end up settling for sub-par efficiency. And their key people will be working harder than necessary to succeed – because they don’t know the right buttons to push when it’s time to take action.

Here’s a real-life example of the problem. I was working with a company that thought it had a problem with frontline supervision. “They’re not being accountable for their performance,” my contact said. So I said, “Show me where it’s written down what the supervisors are responsible for.” He couldn’t do that. There were no responsibilities written down. But unless you can document these policies for all to see, how can you hope to achieve your goals – or hold people accountable for them?

Here’s the right way to make people accountable:

  1. If you are accountable for an outcome, it has to be measurable. It has to be numerical. (The word “count” is the key to “accountable.”) For instance, when you make someone accountable for health and safety at your plant, you monitor performance through the number of days lost due to accidents, or some similar metric.
  2. Clarify responsibility. You can’t hold someone accountable for production if they have no control over equipment, tooling or maintenance. Assign accountability to those who actually make the decisions.
  3. Measure the right things. More production doesn’t help if you’re making the wrong thing. Additional sales aren’t productive if production and delivery cost more than the sale price. I once worked with a company that valued sales volume above everything. They didn’t notice that the sales team was pushing through orders that weren’t exactly what the customers needed – which mean they required costly modifications. The company was losing money on each order, while the sales staff were earning bonuses.

Getting started in this work is tough. You can’t just hand it off to HR – they don’t understand the business impact of every decision. So each department has to work closely with HR to ensure they review each manager’s responsibilities, fairly resolve overlapping jurisdictions, and assign appropriate accountabilities. Each manager and executive can probably take responsibility for three to five measurable KPIs (key performance indicators). More than that is usually asking too much.
Finally, make sure your people know that accountability is a positive thing. You’re not out to punish people for underperformance. The reason you hold people accountable is to set them up for success. KPIs are for problem-solving; they tell us where to improve when something isn’t working.

The only point of measuring is to let us know when and where to take action.

Where there is no accountability, no one knows what’s not working, or how to fix it. As a result, the wrong people will be working overtime to solve the problem, while the key decision makers get off scot-free. Doing things right takes time and effort at the start, but it always pays off in the long run.

Does any of this sound too familiar? Are you seeing similar problems in your organization? Contact me for a free consultation. Revisiting accountability may be a huge opportunity for your business. I’d be pleased to help you get started. jholland@spyder.works

By Jeff Holland

If you’re a market leader striving to stay on top, Jeff is eager to assist. Backed by Spyder Works’ deep expertise in business strategy, innovation, intrapreneurship, marketing and customer experience, Jeff can help you get ahead and stay there.


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