We want people to be responsible and accountable, but in my experience this is a very poorly understood concept. We need to explore this more and understand what it means to each other before we can start “holding” people to these.
If I am going to be “accountable” for something I want to know what I have to account for – and how much control, autonomy or response ability I have to manage that which I am accountable for.
In my search for meaning here I started in the traditional place – definitions.
- The obligation of an individual or organization to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them, and to disclose the results in a transparent manner. It also includes the responsibility for money or other entrusted property.
- Accountability cannot exist without proper accounting practices; in other words, an absence of accounting means an absence of accountability.
- Accountability, on the other hand, means that the employee is held responsible for successfully completing the task and will have to at least explain why they failed to do so.
How about this?
(BTW – definitions that use the word being defined in the definition make me crazy! And, it is clear that accountability is not a well defined term)
Bottom line (pun intended) accountability is about counting things, and then understanding what those things mean in the context of the decisions that you are making. In my work I try to get people to focus on the outcomes they are trying to achieve, the actions they can take to achieve them (their responses – which is what makes them responsible – a previous blog) and then the items/events/trigger forces that they are going to pay attention to that will give them indications that it is time to make a response to an outcome – the things they need to take into account, to be accountable for, to track, to measure.
What do you see, count or measure?
The key question for accountability then is “What things are you able to count, measure, see and adjust your actions accordingly (responsibility)?” We need to know the edges, the guidelines, the boundaries. You cannot hold someone accountable for something they did not know they had to be aware of, and adjust for.
How are these definitions?
Account – what you count, track or measure that allows you to know that you need to take an action or use an event to help you complete your role effectively.
Accountability – how you use/used the things you count, track or measure to guide your responses to a situation.
So to hold someone accountable we need to have conversations around what they are tracking and why. We need to ask “what are you looking at, and why does it give you the information you need?” “What do the numbers tell you about how to change your course or actions?”
This is so important because if you are taking the wrong things into account you cannot make good decisions. If you are tracking the right things, then you need to know what the decision points are. This is where accountability can go wildly awry. If we don’t give clear guidance and training to people about how to do this, how can we expect them to know how to be responsible and accountable?
How much is too much, how long is too long, how many is too many?
Being able to understand the meaning of the things we track is what true accountability is. Understanding the relationship between the things we measure and the outcomes we are aiming for and then knowing when the items we are tracking are telling us to make a change in direction or approach is what accountability means. Then being able to articulate that in a transparent and visible manner.
Accountability is about understanding what drives your decisions and gives you the impetus of a change of direction.