Responsibility beats Accountability
Why Initiative is better than a blame trail
“We need to hold people accountable.”
I invite you to just look at that sentence for a minute. I hear it in every organization we work with. Every. Single. Time.
Look at the sentence.
Now, consider for a moment, why you would say it.
What is Accountability
We have a few excuses that we confuse with reasons for “holding people accountable.”
1. We want to make sure work gets done.
2. We want to make sure the people assigned to their work do their assigned task.
3. We want to know who to go to when something goes wrong.
All three of these “reasons” are actually responses to failures in your process. They are emotional, simplistic reactions. You and your team and your organization simply have a crummy system that requires individual wringable necks to be identified in advance for inevitable pre-ordained failure.
More often than not, accountability makes individuals individually accountable for a team failure. Information flow is poor, real-time understanding of work is non-existent, people are overloaded, stuff falls through the cracks and you blame them for that stuff.
You assign accountability. It is a push model.
Accountability is blame.
Accountability is an anti-pattern. It is overhead. It is an indication that your system is poorly designed.
What is Responsibility
On the other hand, we have responsibility. It is what we all want. But we settle for accountability because we’re too busy “working” to build a responsible shared process. Or we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that process is someone else’s job.
Responsibility is when people not only understand the tasks they have taken on but also understand what their colleagues are doing and how they can help. Responsibility is when all members of your team know what needs to be done and they do it.
In a responsibility model when something goes wrong people identify the problem and they fix it. More often than not, problems are fixable (breakdowns in communication, more effective ways working, dealing with a short-term bottleneck). Problems are spotted early and solved, rather than hidden because of fear of accountability. Work is done without fear of individual reprisal and people take responsibility for stuff.
People accept responsibility. It is a pull model.
Responsibility is professionalism.
Responsibility is healthy. It reduced overhead. It is a sign your processes and systems are well designed.
Your Assignment This Week
Examine and discuss with others where your system favors blame over professionalism.
Where do you stop your professionals from doing their job? Where have you build fear or doubt into the system? How overloaded are people? What was the last blamable action that could have been avoided? How much time did you spend on that avoidable work?
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Jim Benson is the creator and co-author (with Tonianne DeMaria) of the best seller: Personal Kanban. His other books include Why Limit WIP, Why Plans Fail, and Beyond Agile. He is a winner of the Shingo Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking and the Brickell Key Award. He and Tonianne teach online at Modus Institute and consult regularly, helping clients in all verticals create working systems. He regularly keynotes conferences, focusing on making work rewarding and humane.