Accountability, Collaboration and Self Organization

Every organisation, every team, and every individual deals with issues of accountability, but we don’t stop and specifically talk about accountability very much at all. There seems to be some unspoken assumption that accountability is something that we learn about as we grow up — that somewhere along the line, children figure out what it means to be accountable for their actions and that this translates naturally into a business and software development context.

Experience suggests this isn’t the case, at least not always, and I’d like to spend a little bit of time exploring accountability and its close sibling, responsibility, and suggest some good practices related to accountability. Finally. I’d like to look at accountability in collaborative, self-organising environments.

What is accountability? Wikipedia suggests that, broadly speaking,

“accountability is answerability, blameworthiness, liability, and the expectation of account-giving”.

RACI is frequently used in organisational governance, and in this context accounting is an element “to indicate who is ultimately answerable for the correct and thorough completion of the deliverable or task, and the one who delegates the work to those responsible.” It’s this last sense that captures what we most often mean in software development.

When we talk about accountability we also often talk about responsibility — together, they are the RA in RACI. The accountability is about being ultimately answerable for outcomes, while the responsibility is about who does the work that leads to the outcomes.

Effective accountability has these characteristics:

  • it is usually assigned to an individual, not to a group
  • it is held by the same individual until the outcome is achieved or it is explicitly transferred
  • it cannot be transferred without the agreement of the the receiver and at least the knowledge of all the affected stakeholders
  • it usually includes deadline expectations, either agreed or implied
  • if accountability is assigned to a group, then the group is jointly and severally accountable (that is, each individual is considered accountable for the entire outcome)
  • if you were accountable at some point, you should assume that at least some people think you’re still accountable
  • fundamentally, its function is to remove uncertainty

Here are some examples:

  • A team is assembled to look after an incident. The team identifies three tasks that need to get done, and three different team members each take accountability and responsibility for one task. The accountability for the overall incident response is held by the team leader, and that person continues to be accountable, whether those three tasks resolve the incident or not.
  • A technical task needs action from a vendor. The internal team transfers responsibility for the action to the vendor, but the internal team needs to continue to monitor and chase if required, and to check the quality of the vendor’s work — in other words, while the vendor is responsible, the team continues to be accountable.

Suggested practices related to accountability and responsibility

Wrap up every meeting or conversation in which potential actions were discussed with clear assignment and acknowledgement

It’s common practice to do this after a team/group meeting, but less common after a conversation between just a few people. The two situations should be treated in the same way. Accountability — who and for what — should be made clear.

Be clear if you’re taking responsibility or accountability

Are you going to do something at some point — or perhaps not, depending on your workload? That sounds like responsibility rather than accountability. If you’re going to chase things until the outcome is achieved, or you’re agreeing to finish by a certain date, that sounds more like taking accountability.

If you’re not taking accountability or responsibility, say so

This can be as simple as saying “I’m not expecting to do anything as a result of this conversation — does everyone agree that’s appropriate?”. This avoids later disappointment.

Handovers of accountability need to be communicated explicitly

This is sometimes referred to as “taking the conn” or “calling the ball” — you explicitly let everyone know that from this point on, you are taking accountability, or you have transferred accountability to another person. Don’t be vague. If there is uncertainty, then accountability has not been transferred.

Communication should always specify the worst case for next communication

If people aren’t sure when they can expect to be updated, they will make their own assumptions — this often leads to people polling for information, or feeling disappointed that their (implicit) expectations haven’t been met.

For example, “We will give an update when we hear from the vendor, or by 5pm at the latest.”

If people feel that 5pm may be too late, they can question this immediately.

Self organisation and collaboration

The principles discussed above are general rules that apply to accountability and responsibility in any organisation or team. My experience is that applying these to collaborative, self organising teams requires careful consideration, and depends on the experience of the team as a collaborative group (which might be quite different to their experience within their discipline).

The first impulse when working with a collaborative group is to assign accountability to the group as a whole. The failure mode for this strategy, with any group, is that accountability falls through the cracks, with the result that rather than the whole group being accountable, we end up with no one feeling accountable. Group accountability only works when everyone in the group is aware of everything that is going on, everyone is alert to the need for action, and everyone is ready and willing to act when required. As the group gets larger, this becomes increasingly difficult — just keeping everyone aware of everything that’s going on becomes a burden. The larger the group, the harder it is for any individual to maintain their sense of accountability (a result well known from psychology).

Given these problems, it seems fairly natural to fall back on individual accountability, but this also contains a hidden danger — the risk that the people who aren’t specifically accountable may feel that they aren’t accountable at all and disengage. This risk exists in any group, but in a group that generally prides itself on collaboration, people may feel not only a lack of accountability but also resentment at what they perceive as an undermining of their values.

The challenge, at least in a collaborative environment, is to maintain collaborative engagement across the team, in tandem with someone feeling accountable for ensuring that things stay on track. Moving too far in either direction from this balance introduces one of the risks described earlier.

What’s happening in your team right now?

Experience says that accountability isn’t as important when things are going well — when everything is on track and outcomes are good, then it probably doesn’t matter too much who is accountable. Given this, it can be illuminating to reflect on what happens when things go wrong in your team.

Do we ever:

  • discover that we’re not working on what should be our top priority?
  • fail to follow up on some external request?
  • find out that we’ve disappointed some external party?
  • leave conflict unresolved?
  • notice that we’ve not stuck to our own working agreements?
  • deliver lower quality than we intended?
  • miss a deadline?
  • ignore an action from a meeting or conversation?

If, like most teams, you answer yes to at least one of these questions, then you may have an accountability problem. Do you at least know which individual or group is nominally accountable for these things? Are they acting consistently with this accountability? Do they have the time, authority and resources they need to back up their accountability?

Summary

While there seems to be a ready answers to the issue of accountability (i.e. the team leader is accountable for everything), the easy answers are rarely effective in isolation. Issues of accountability and responsibility need to be consciously considered, and arranged in accordance with the values of the team and the skills and experience of the individuals in the team. However, ignoring accountability, or leaving it to chance, is never the right answer.

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