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“Onward” by jayfleck

Accountability ≠ Responsibility

My opinion on why it is a bad idea to mix up the two concepts

Tom Sommer
Apr 9, 2019 · 4 min read

My first adventures in a lead role took place about 5 years ago — as a team lead. Back then, I am part of a small team and we completely redesign a core page for redbubble.com. The page where our visitors add an item to their cart.

Being an engineer, I spend most of my time in code. But with the team lead role, things change. I also have to make sure the project is on track… Are we meeting our timelines? Did we forget anything? Are we all working towards the same goal?

Overall we are making good progress, but the closer the project comes to the finish line the more controlling I get. Being the team lead I feel like it is my responsibility to ensure everything is working as expected. I write a lot more code than everybody else. Do most of the testing, and do the actual release.

Thinking back at this now, I realise how much better a leader I could have been. I thought the best way to help the team was by doing all the things myself, instead of supporting others. I was confused about the concepts of responsibility and accountability.

But it is not only me with this confusion. I see these two concepts getting mixed up all the time. Why is that?

Let us start where most of us would begin if they are looking for a definition — with the dictionary:

accountability
noun: accountability
the fact or condition of being accountable; responsibility.
synonyms: responsibility, liability, answerability

I was almost annoyed when I looked it up! How can both terms be classified as synonyms? But at least it explains why they often get used interchangeably, at least in the English language.

It took me a few years, but I now strongly believe they are different and need to be treated differently. Here is my definition (which is similar to others):

  • Accountability. A single person who has to answer to the output or outcome — often the leader of the team, department or company.
  • Responsibility. The person or group of people working towards the expected output or outcome, within the given boundaries.

This might be a little cryptic. Let me clarify what I mean with a couple examples…

The most obvious case is in regards to the CEO. In any company, the CEO is accountable for the performance of the whole company. But unless the company is a super-small startup, a CEO is not responsible for the performance. Every single employee is. The same goes for any other executive and their respective departments and areas.

On a lower level, an Engineering Manager (EM) is accountable for the quality of the delivered software. But the responsibility lies with every member of the engineering team. On other topics — like the product roadmap — the EM is responsible but not accountable. The Product Manager in crime is, but the EM has to make sure it makes sense from a technology perspective.

All examples so far — team lead, CEO, and Engineering Manager — have one thing in common: they are leader and manager roles. And for good reason.

When taking on a leader or manager role, you shift from lots of responsibility to lots of accountability.

As a software engineer you are responsible for certain outcomes, but not accountable. Yes, at the very basic level you are accountable to show up on time and to follow the rules. But in regards to business outcomes, someone else is.

When you are a manager things change. Your responsibility decreases while you become accountable for more areas. As an Engineering Manager, your direct contributions (e.g. writing code) to the project become less. But in the end, you will be the first person that has to answer for the outcome. As the CEO, you almost never have direct output — e.g. code written, products sold — but all the accountability.

The trouble is if leaders forget about this and try to do both — like me 5 years ago. If not acted upon, it can lead to:

  • Controlling leaders who micro-manage.
  • Bad habits, where those truly responsible rely on the accountable person doing the work.
  • What Andy Grove calls low-leverage activities with lots of wasted effort.

It is very easy to fall into the responsibility / accountability trap, especially as a leader. Heck, it happens to me more often than I am proud to admit.

But there are some ideas you can take to avoid some of the confusion and pitfalls:

  • Explicit roles & responsibilities. In my previous article, I shared a great way to avoid uncertainty by assigning clear roles to members of the team. And part of that should be to state who is accountable.
  • RACI. A popular framework to make roles explicit is RACI. It covers accountability and responsibility as well as other roles which help minimise confusion.
  • Effective delegation. A review of your delegation approach can help with a better focus on accountability.
  • Focus on Leverage. Follow Andy Grove’s advice and think about the activities that give you high leverage as a leader. Most of the time it is about either affecting a large group of people or having a lasting impact on a few. Rarely is it doing the work for them.

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