In testing our 10 principles of successful strategy execution with teams, accountability has consistently been the least liked of the principles. Accountability has a negative connotation – people typically feel they are being watched, as if someone is standing over their shoulder when accountability is mentioned. In an outcomes-based management environment, this is the last thing we want. Neither people watching over others nor feeling that you are being watched is of any help. It’s time to redefine accountability.

Let’s define accountability

If you Google accountability, you’ll find a myriad of frameworks trying to describe accountability vs. responsibility, and some add more words to form more acronyms. We’ve taken a stance to stay away from this debate and, hopefully, focus on changing mindsets about accountability into something more positive.

As a starting point to change mindsets, think about accountability as an opportunity provided to someone instead of a burden being placed on that person.

Someone should be accountable, not be held accountable. Being held accountable means you’re “being held”; in essence, being trapped, holding you to account. This doesn’t conjure up great feelings or an inviting culture. It’s someone looking over your shoulder, asking you to report back on what you did and didn’t do.

If, however, someone is accountable, that person takes the opportunity. There has been mutual agreement to reach this point, and it’s not something that has been dictated. There’s usually a peer or mentorship model involved, as opposed to a manager or, worst of all, a boss.

For us, accountability is ownership, and ownership is a mindset. You handle a rental car differently from your own car – even if it’s just the time it spends in your care. You handle your kids differently than someone else’s kids.

Why accountability is important

In our 10 principles, accountability is one of our “Commitment” principles. Shakespeare said, “Nothing comes from nothing”. We interpret this as, if there is no commitment, there is no opportunity for growth.

Making a commitment provides an opportunity for change, for learning, and for growth. Change in people happens through committed relationships. Change in communities happens through people who own homes in that community, and change in organisations happens through people who have made commitments. With no decision, there’s no learning.

Using OKRs, we hope to create clarity around the goals being pursued, with deadlines and individuals who will be driving those OKRs. These are the commitments we make. With the combination of these three elements – an OKR, a deadline and a person – you will be able to leverage learnings.

Here’s how: You get to your deadline date. You set up a time to reflect. During your reflection, you consider your OKR. Who was accountable for that OKR? What did they do to progress the results? How did they create transparency? Which other parties did they get involved? Which conversations did they have or not have? All of these are opportunities to learn.

Lastly, accountability itself creates clarity. We know clarity is required before accountability can exist. We mean that a goal or OKR needs to be clearly defined before someone can be accountable for it. Once someone becomes accountable, it creates even more clarity for the rest of the organisation.

Accountable for what?

In an outcomes-based management model like OKRs, there’s a lot of discussion around what you can be held accountable for. Have a look at this picture:

It’s easy to argue that someone is accountable for their inputs and possibly outputs, but how can they be accountable for the outcomes or impact?

This is a valid question. Outcomes, and impact, are a result of someone’s actions. They are often determined by a market’s response to our output. For example, we can produce a certain amount of products (output), but that doesn’t add value to the business yet. The value is only added once those products are sold to the market (outcome). So arguably, the outcome is outside of our control – it’s dependent on how the market reacts.

So what’s the solution? How are we accountable for outcomes?

  • Option 1: We opt to use “accountable” for inputs and outputs and “driver” for outcomes or impact. This works and makes the difference clear – you are accountable for your contribution towards the results, and it’s expected that you drive those results.
  • Option 2: Create an ownership mindset. This circumvents the entire conversation because owners aren’t worried about inputs and outputs. They want results. However, we understand that this isn’t always possible, specifically in large organisations; hence Option 1 still exists.

If someone owns a result – if they are committed – they will find a way. They will pursue various options. If they bump into impediments, they will call for help. They will try different ideas and avenues until, eventually, something works. Sometimes, they will run out of time, which should be okay as well. The important thing is that there is continuous forward motion. There is traction.

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