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Photo by Alberto Barrera

How we hold each other to account

in a self-organized company

Manuel Küblböck
May 31, 2019 · 13 min read

The topic of accountability seems taboo in the Agile and new work communities. We like to assume the best in people — that they are trustworthy adults and will do the right thing. I whole-heartedly believe in this. At the same time, I think holding each other to account is of great importance for any organization to achieve its goals.

The reason I think so is trust. Trust is a core building block of effective collaboration. It is a consequence of repeatedly upheld promises. Collaboration is a network of people making promises to each other. When trust is present, people interact with each other without cautious defense mechanisms that drain part of their energy. Trust allows collaboration to compound. When there is a lack of accountability, however, trust quickly turns into resentment when the trusted other doesn’t achieve the promised results.

Accountability is not optional for a high-performing group.

Accepting your freedom requires that you account for your choices. Freedom and accountability are two sides of the same coin. […] If you own your actions, you can be asked for your reasons and held accountable for their consequences. Power is the prize of responsibility; accountability is its price.
— Fred Kofman, Conscious Business

Just so we are talking about the same things

The terms responsibility and accountability are often used interchangeably. I use them with the following meanings close to the words’ origins.

  • responsibility: being able to respond to a situation
  • taking responsibility: assuming ownership for something and committing to take action
  • accountability: being able to account for — i.e. interpret and explain — a situation
  • holding someone to account: having someone else answer for the results of a made promise and enforcing its consequences
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An agent of a system may be an individual or a group of people. Taking responsibility is an action by an agent of a system. Holding someone to account is an interaction between two agents of a system.

Holding someone to account is quite literally about “holding someone to a count”: to prevent someone from looking the other way; to make them look at a result — a count — until they act accordingly and deal with the consequences.

To fully understand the concept of responsibility I recommend reading the book The Responsibility Process by Christopher Avery. This post goes into detail about the concept of accountability.

Holding each other to account — step by step

Before one agent of a system can hold another to account, they need a contract between them. The response-able agent makes a promise to the account-able agent who accepts it, the result of which is a contract. Making promises presumes agency. If the response-able agent can’t say ‘No‘, their ‘Yes’ is compromised — it is not based on intrinsic motivation and will likely not lead to true commitment. The promise includes an intended result. The promise, however, can only ensure the possibility of the intended result but cannot guarantee it.

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After a contract with a clear promise has been made between two agents, the response-able agent delivers a result to uphold the promise. This result is then interpreted by the account-able agent. Each outcome has a logical effect as its consequence, which determines further actions.

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Enforcing consequences can be difficult — especially when the result falls short of the intent stated by the promise and the consequence hurts the response-able agent. It can be made easier for both parties when the consequence is a logical effect of the result and is accepted at the time the promise is made. When this is the case, the response-able agent usually follows through according to the accepted consequence without the account-able agent having to enforce them actively. In most cases, candid feedback is all that is required.

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Examples, please

Here are some examples of what this looks like in practice.

As an organization, our promise to each other is to

  • strive towards our company vision to maximize our impact. If we achieve our intended growth, we will be able to increase our salaries and hire new colleagues. When we fall short, we accept the role we played in the situation and don’t blame others.
  • act according to our company values to create a thriving environment for each of us. If we create an environment where we feel like we belong, we will feel happier and more fulfilled in our lives. When we observe others not acting according to our company values, we address it with them.
  • provide a platform for personal and professional growth to enable each of us to grow substantially each year. If their own progress motivates our colleagues, they will stay with the company and provide long term value. When colleagues leave, we seek to understand their reasons and take an honest look at the environment we created.

As a team, we promise to

  • prepare objectives and key results for each OKR cycle so we can calibrate efforts on company level. If we set ambitious goals on time, we can set our own goals without supervision by others. When we don’t, we actively ask for — and accept — more guidance.
  • stay focused on our objectives and not get distracted to maximize the chances of success. If we deliver the best results possible on our objectives, we can manage our daily work without supervision by others. When we don’t, we actively ask for — and accept — more guidance.
  • keep the organization up to date on our progress: achievements, as well as lessons learned from failures, so others can adjust their plans when necessary. If others feel in the loop and see us as a reliable team, they won’t frequently ask for status updates.

As an individual, I promise to

  • make progress on the most valuable task during my team’s stand-ups to reach my team’s objectives. If I consistently finish tasks in the time I promised, I can manage my daily work. When I can’t, I actively ask for support from my team members.
  • commit to personal and professional growth to become more valuable for the company. If I increase my skills, I will be rewarded with more responsibility and compensation reflecting my increased value for the company.
  • act in the best interest of the organization so others can spend their energy on more valuable tasks than supervising me. Having the authority to make my own decisions means I take responsibility for explaining my choices in a way that is reasonable to others.

Many of these examples illustrate that the autonomy that is so cherished in self-organized companies is not a given. It is, instead, the consequence of accountability — of fully owning your promises, your choices, their results, and the consequences, and others being able to count on that.


Now that we have a shared understanding of accountability and some examples, let’s have a closer look at promises, results, and consequences, shall we?

On reliable promises and predictable results

Reliable promises can only be made about certain levels of results, depending on the predictability of the context and the autonomy stage (i.e. what someone can reliably deliver on) of the person making the promise.

In highly predictable (i.e. low-complexity) contexts reliable promises can be made on outcomes or even intentions. In low predictable (i.e.high-complexity) contexts this is not possible because results are not entirely predictable even when the current situation is apparent. Here, reliable promises can only be made on inputs or outputs, like delivering a feature, with the intent of an outcome.

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This is not to say that we can’t make promises on outcome or intention in low predictable contexts. But we need to be aware that, when we do, the results cannot be guaranteed.

On promises and conditions

Promises usually come with strings attached in the form of conditions that the accountable agent accepts with the promise. Often, part of the conditions, e.g. time and money, are provided to the responsible agent by the accountable agent. Only if the accountable person holds up their end of the contract, i.e. the conditions they control, can they enforce consequences for the delivered results. When the conditions balloon pops the promise is void.

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On consequences and punishments

A consequence is a logical effect of a delivered result. When people understand and accept the logic, they find it easy to follow through on the effect. When this is not the case, however, the effect feels like a punishment and is met with resistance. Consequences lead to empowerment and growth. Punishments lead to resentment and victimhood.

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Understanding and accepting the consequences at the time a promise is made allows us to invite others to hold us to account. Being held to account becomes a valuable service by a trusted partner to achieve our own goals.

“So just to clarify, you’re committing to delivering x by y, is that correct?”

“Correct. And you holding me to account would actually help me delivering on it. Would you be willing to look with me at my progress on this once a week?”

Making sure members of a team connect their own goals with the goals of the team is what leadership is all about. When this is the case, inviting others to hold us to account feels logical and valuable. It makes all the difference if being held to account is invited by ourselves or forced upon us. The former helps us grow and outperform self-set limits. The latter makes us defensive and leads to achieving less than we are capable of.

There is a thin line between holding someone to account and blaming. We help someone in growing their responsibility by enforcing consequences without showing anger, lecturing, or using threats, but instead by showing empathy and support while handing the situation and its consequences back to them. “This is not your fault, and it is your responsibility to deal with it.”

On support and rescue

It can be difficult to hand a situation and its consequences back to someone — especially if we are capable of quickly fixing the situation for them. However, if we repeatedly rescue others instead of letting them suffer the consequences of their choices, we prevent them from learning and growing their own responsibility. Do offer support, but let them own their problems, unless there is a high risk of irreversible high-impact damage.

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To amplify growth as a response-able agent, increase agency over promises, exposure to results, and agency over following through on consequences. As the account-able agent, to amplify the growth of the response-able agent, increase shared understanding of context, defer judgment when interpreting results, and increase empathy when enforcing consequences.

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With this detailed view of accountability consisting of promises, results, and consequences, let’s see how we deal with broken contracts, how to scale it to multiple teams, and what prerequisites there are for this to work.

On delegation and accountability

Accountability and responsibility often get mixed up because in many cases the accountable person is also the ultimately responsible person. They delegated responsibility to another person that they subsequently hold to account. They, in turn, are held to account by someone else. This creates a chain of delegation and accountability all the way to the executive directors of the company, who are held to account by the public in court.

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On progression from one promise to the next

Understanding and accepting the consequences of a result leads quite naturally to another promise on how to deal with the consequences. Asking “What?”, “So what?”, and “Now what?” helps us move through these steps.

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How we deal with broken contracts

When results that depend on factors beyond our control turn out differently than intended, we don’t talk about fault. Neither do we talk about bad choices or what we should have done instead. What is important for accountability is that we acknowledge that we made a choice and that we own it fully.

We are fully responsible for preparing and dealing with situations to the best of our knowledge and capabilities. Once we become aware that an intended result will not be achieved, we are also responsible for transforming the situation into an opportunity to learn. We explain what happened as part of understanding the situation, but we do not make excuses that invalidate the contract.

When we realize that there is a serious risk that we will not fulfill a promise, we can still honor our word by apologizing. An effective apology requires much more than simply muttering “I’m sorry” and asking for forgiveness. Expressing regret is a crucial step, but it is only the beginning. It is also essential to accept accountability and do what’s necessary to recover impeccability: address the incomplete task, restore trust to the relationship, and help minimize the damage caused to your counterpart.
— Fred Kofman, Conscious Business

How we scale accountability to multiple teams

Traditional organizations exert accountability through a pyramid of supervisors. In the absence of a supervisor hierarchy in a self-organized company with autonomous teams, we use social pressure and accountability partners to distribute the task of holding each other to account. This forms an accountability network where people hold each other to account. Addressing it when we are not delivering on our promises is tough but essential. If we don’t, accountability will erode, and we are missing opportunities to learn and grow.

Within teams, we keep each other to account for our work through daily stand-ups where we synchronize our work and commit to tasks we will finish before the next stand-up on the following day. As a team, we choose ourselves if we find it useful to have a dedicated accountability partner or if the social pressure created by the stand-up is sufficient.

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Across teams, we hold each other to account for our work on a team level. Assuming teams know how to hold themselves to account internally, this scales well because we can hold teams to account collectively without the need to know the interior promises of individuals. The following four ingredients need to be in place to use social pressure on a team level (as described in Beta Codex).

  1. People belong to and identify with a small team and its mission.
  2. Team members have a shared responsibility for achieving this mission.
  3. All relevant information is open and transparent to the team.
  4. Team results are made comparable across teams.

Additionally, we give the mandate to act as an accountability partner for our teams to our board (compare “mission circles” in Sociocracy). While anybody may hold others to account it is a leadership responsibility to do so when no-one else does.

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By structuring teams in a way that gives them direct contact to their customers, we outsource part of holding them to account to the market. However, only when teams have consequential market metrics — like their own profit & loss statements — can the market also enforce consequences.

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Prerequisites for accountability

For accountability to work in this way in a self-organized organization the following prerequisites must be fulfilled:

  1. We commit to a shared goal. “If you want to make accountability and cooperation occur at the same time, you need to inspire people and create a culture of commitment and connection to a larger purpose.” — Fred Kofman, The Meaning Revolution
  2. We document and communicate the intended results of reliable teams. This behavior enables us as a company to understand and predict outcomes.
  3. We develop norms for direct conflict resolution between individuals to confront each other when needed.

Conclusion

When levels of ownership and personal responsibility are high in a team or organization, then accountability systems can be lightweight and simple because we don’t need layers of watchers and heavy controls to know that people are producing results that matter.
— Christopher Avery, The Responsibility Process

Accountability takes the backseat to responsibility — and rightfully so. Areas, where we feel the need to hold each other to account, are areas where we are not taking 100% responsibility (yet). These are areas for us to learn and grow.

When responsibility is practiced well, accountability requires very little action. But when accountability is neglected while intended results are not achieved, trust turns into resentment. And with lost trust, responsibility disappears too.

Parting questions

Just reading about a concept is not how we learn. If you want to apply the concept of accountability in your work context start by answering these questions then discuss your answers with your colleagues.

  • What promises do you make at work? Make a list.
  • What level of results do you make promises on? Is that appropriate to your autonomy stage and context predictability?
  • How do you track and evaluate the results of what you deliver on your promises?
  • Who else is interpreting these results? Who enforces their consequences if you don’t act on them? When and where does that happen?
  • Do they know that this is one of their responsibilities? Ask them. Discuss it with them.
  • Who do you hold to account? Are they aware of this? Go through the above questions with them.
  • Are you comfortable with being held to account? Why? Why not?
  • Are you comfortable with holding others to account? Why? Why not?

🙏 Many thanks to Henning Wolf, Lisa Gill, and Christopher Avery for your valuable feedback that helped me gain clarity on this topic.

In my mental models, I pragmatically synthesize what works in both traditional and new ways of working. Writing is both how I communicate my mental models and how I crystalize them. My writing is exploratory and evolving. I will revise this post over the next few months with newly gained clarity. To support this, I very much appreciate your feedback. Be it a critique, uncovered blind spots, different perspectives, or agreement.

The Caring Network Company

An organization where each of us cares about and for the…

Manuel Küblböck

Written by

Org design & transformation, Agile and Lean practitioner, web fanboy, ski tourer, coffee snob.

The Caring Network Company

An organization where each of us cares about and for the organization, each other, and ourselves; that is structured as networks of people that form teams, companies, and communities; that satisfy needs of customers, workers, and the company.

Manuel Küblböck

Written by

Org design & transformation, Agile and Lean practitioner, web fanboy, ski tourer, coffee snob.

The Caring Network Company

An organization where each of us cares about and for the organization, each other, and ourselves; that is structured as networks of people that form teams, companies, and communities; that satisfy needs of customers, workers, and the company.

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