Accountability is the act of being answerable or accountable for something. For example, every time I drive a car I am accountable for it being in a road worthy state, safe to drive, and that I drive it according to the laws of the country I am in. When I am in Europe, it is up to me to drive on the right hand side of the road! It is a key component of any successful organisation, yet it is often overlooked or not given the attention it deserves. In this blog post, we will cover the benefits of organisational accountability and how it can help you improve value delivery.
In the Scrum Guide update in 2020, Roles were renamed to Accountabilities. Part of the reason was to emphasise the collective ownership of the Scrum Team, and to remove any ‘us and them’ behaviour between the Product Owner and the Developers.
There are many benefits that come with being accountable. For Organisations, accountability can lead to increased productivity, progress towards goals, and improved decision-making. For individuals, accountability can lead to increased trust between each other, increased motivation and a sense of ownership.
Organisations that have implemented agile approaches have reported several benefits, including increased value, flow, and performance. With a key factor for success being individual and collective accountability.
Accountability at the individual, team and organisational level is key for the successful adoption of agile. By holding individuals, teams, and Organisations accountable you create an environment of trust and respect. This, in turn, leads to more effective communication, increased productivity, and a more positive work environment.
Clarity around accountability will further enhance and grow trust while boosting effective empiricism (Transparency, Inspection and Adaptation).
What is accountability?
Accountability is the willingness to bear the consequences for what you do, and to be answerable for the choices and actions, or inaction. It is the concept of holding oneself or others to account for their performance or actions. Once accountability is established, it encourages people to take a more active role in their work, to create and achieve goals, and increase decision-making. Moreover, accountability helps to build trust and ensures that everyone is aligned on the strategies.
When it comes to business, individuals, teams, and the organisation must be accountable for their actions.
For an accountability to be useful, it should have:
Clear and explicit details of what you are accountable for.
Explicit acceptance of the accountability. This means that you have the option to reject or turn down an offered accountability.
When these elements are in place, the accountability is clear to everyone, so it is known what is being accepted. This sets the foundations for success – as there is no ambiguity. From explicit clarity, the people involved can hold themselves and others to meet the agreed accountability.
How many times have you experienced confusion or conflict over a misalignment on who will do which task, or when something should be completed by? This drama could be avoided by having a discussion to build a clear, common framing of the accountability.
The benefits of individual accountability
Individual accountability fosters a sense of ownership and empowerment that is key to creating lasting engagement. In this video from Dan Pink on Drive, he highlights the need for autonomy, mastery and purpose as the core to motivating people. Clear accountabilities provide the guardrails for this to work.
When we have clarity on our accountabilities, it helps us align towards our shared goals and fosters healthy boundaries. The boundaries will enable people to take decisions, as they understand the purpose and the constraints that they are working within. The freedom to make decisions will improve the way that people collaborate, encouraging greater innovation in solving the challenges of the product and overcoming the impediments.
The benefits of team accountability
In our book Mastering Professional Scrum, Stephanie and I highlighted that teams cannot self-organise in a vacuum. A key aspect of that is making it very clear to the team what their accountabilities are.
Using a framework like Scrum provides clear constraints (accountabilities, events, artefacts and commitments) that provide a forcing function to encourage self-organisation. This establishes the boundaries within which a team will self-manage.
The core team accountability in Scrum is to deliver a done Increment each Sprint. When using the Scrum framework, the events provide an opportunity to inspect and adapt, and the commitments supporting each artefact provide clarity on what will be delivered.
These enabling constraints encourage the team to work together towards the common Sprint Goal and Product Goals. This aligns with motivational power of purpose that Dan Pink describes. The shared accountability of a team supports working outside of your speciality, pooling knowledge, experience, and perspectives to find a solution that works. We see this teamwork regularly in high-performing sports teams, as well as high-performing business teams.
The benefits of organisational accountability
Organisational accountability can bring about several benefits for organisations. One of the most prominent benefits of organisational accountability is improved trust between leaders and employees. When organisational accountability is implemented, it gives leaders the ability to delegate tasks and trust that the people and teams will deliver within the constraints. This helps the leaders focus on the creation of space for teams to be effective, and for the teams to focus on delivering value.
Organisational accountability also helps Organisations to ensure that data security and privacy are being respected. With accountability in place, Organisations can be confident that their data is secure, and that employees understand and respect data security protocols. Accountability also encourages transparency and clear communication. When Organisations are held accountable, it encourages them to communicate openly and clearly – both internally and externally. This can result in better problem solving and decision-making, which almost universally has a positive effect on performance and value delivery.
Principles for promoting accountability in your organisation
Here are some clear principles to follow to promote and improve accountability within your organisation.
People need to connect to the narrative.
That is why story telling is so successful in communicating and in enabling others to remember what was communicated – we have been using stories for thousands of years, long before writing was invented. When we have a conversation to shape the accountabilities at all levels, the collaborative exploration and definition helps make the boundaries clearer. This makes it easier for everyone to meet the accountability and hold each other to the accountability. The impact of this is that it makes it easier to consistently hold people to account, and be consistent with any consequences of not honouring the accountability.
As leaders, we need to ensure that the organisational accountabilities are clearly understood throughout the organisation. This means that they need to be communicated effectively, and regularly inspected. The constraints of the accountability may be regulatory, ethical, social or environmental boundaries.
On a practical level, we need to regularly revisit the conversations to keep them fresh. Use conversation as the tool to review whether accountabilities are being honoured, and any adaptations that may need to occur as a result.
Make the constraints clear.
If you have co-created the accountabilities the ambiguity or grey areas should be minimal. Make it easy for people to have a discussion if they are coming close to a constraint. A quick conversation will help build trust, and help everyone be confident that the constraint is being honoured. This will build greater safety, and enable faster decisions.
Co-create accountabilities with the people and teams you work with – preferably when you are defining the accountability. If you are not sure what constraints that you are working within, clarify them in a conversation. Check that you have understood the constraints correctly, and that the other people involved share your understanding. Be clear around the consequences of not working within the constraints. For example “If we overspend on this budget area, it will force cuts in another area”.
When you actively show that you are honouring your accountabilities, by being open about them and regularly asking for and acting on feedback, you create a working example for others to follow.
Holding to Account
Actively work with accountabilities to keep them real and relevant.
Actively reinforce the value of clear accountabilities by:
Openly acknowledging when people are embracing their accountabilities
Provide regular feedback at formal opportunities (e.g. in the Scrum events) as well as in the moment.
Provide positive feedback, not only providing feedback when corrections are needed!
Regularly review the accountabilities to keep them relevant. It doesn’t have to be onerous, a quick check in would be sufficient.
Actively working with clear accountabilities is a key element of building a culture of learning and continuous improvement. The transparency of clear accountabilities allows each person, team and the organisation as a whole to create a space of safety and transparency.
As leaders, we need to ensure that our people and teams are clear on what is expected of them, and that they are accountable for their decisions and actions.
Accountability is a foundation for success, at the individual, team and organisational level. It helps build trust and transparency, enabling inspection and adaptation. It will help you and your team maximise the outcomes you deliver.
How are you working with accountability?
Call to Action
3 things that you can do to make your accountabilities more explicit:
Write down or map the constraints that you are working in. What is the limit of your decision authority? When and who do you seek guidance from?
Check with your manager/leader if your understanding is correct.
Ensure that any accountability that you have delegated is clearly understood. You still own that!