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Why do we do it that way? The challange of Accountability

Companies require accountability to operate and grow.  It’s easy to have accountability when you’re a start up or a small company when everyone has a lot to do and productivity is incredibly visible.  When companies are small, employees work to support one another and title means much less than it does when you get larger.  The trouble starts when the segmentation of business functions becomes strong.  Unless great care is taken to develop a culture of transparency and accountability, those segments begin to operate in silos that protect their anonymity.  This segmentation is necessary for scaling to growing market needs but it must be managed.

Accountability is hard if you’re not used it, but it’s also exhilarating.  The feeling of ownership resonates with those that truly hold themselves accountable and they revel in creating something new and unique.  Accountable cultures are populated with people who not only know their own roles but  know about their teammates roles, how they are dependent and where they can help.  When mutual goals are well understood, accountability becomes a social function and people want to help the larger team.

Many years ago, I worked in a small office of a consulting firm.  There were only about 25 people working out of that office and we all knew what one another were working on.  A contract came in for the Nevada Supreme Court, another launched a handful of us to Orlando for the Toll Road Authority, I got to help a team mate by reviewing and contributing to the U.S. House of Representative’s new network, and others.  We would share our experiences and ask each other for help and advice constantly.  We supported one another and received support.  We were small enough to know one another personally and would ask about the different projects we were on just because we cared for one another and felt like a team.  It was comfortable to ask opinions and for even more extensive help because it was such a symbiotic group.  When our office grew and our projects became more distinct from one another we reached out for help less frequently and we lost that cohesion.

I worked in a medium sized (about 4,000 people) that grew to be over 70,000 and was fortunate to watch the different phases of organizational maturity.  The one thing that this fast growing Silicon Valley company had going for it was that people were empowered to make decisions and were asked to measure the outcome.  Accountability was part of the company’s DNA and they took it seriously at every level.  Customer Satisfaction was the highest priority because of its implications for long-term sales and growth.  Everything cascaded from that view.  If customer satisfaction dropped and revenue fell for a Business Unit the leader was in trouble and might not last.  Engineering Managers and Directors were also rewarded based upon customer satisfaction and quality relationships, which indicated their organizational performance.  There was always that one person you could point to that provided incredible (and unbelievable) results but for the most part people strove to accurately measure business outcomes and understand how to make decisions from that information.  That company was able to make massive organizational changes quickly because they were accustomed to crisply defining their goals, develop measurements that reflected decision points, and aligned teams of people behind the vision.  This culture of accountability also allowed people to feel a “connectedness” to their teammates.

I have found that there are some distinct red flags in a company that does not have a culture of accountability.  You have to listen very carefully because it is subtle, but the signs are there.  A couple of classics are some of the pat phrases that indicate resistance to change.  “We’ve tried that before”, “I’ve been here for 10 years and….”, “I’m already working nights and weekends”.  Quite often it won’t be this overt.  Passive aggression is normally the main weapon against accountability.  You might find that meeting attendees view their role as “input providers” but won’t accept actions.  Sometimes they won’t tell you that they haven’t accepted an action, they just don’t deliver.  These are behaviors of people that are not invested in your goals.  My favorite is the not so passive-aggressive statement “What YOU need to do is…..”.  That makes it clear that if you want something done, you’re on your own.

I joined a medium sized company (about 10,000) that said they were ready to transform their processes, governance, and accountability systems.  They wanted someone that had experience managing large scale change and understoond how to measure and communicate business outcomes.  This growing company had an outstanding reputation so I was very surprised to find that the corporate culture was so fractured.  Leadership demanded project delivery dates with no initial analysis and their employees would march to the date.  Clearly scope and resources were going to suffer with that kind of approach but they would never admit to themselves that there was an impact.  They seemed shocked that their product quality suffered and their teams were on the ragged edge of morale.  I found all levels of the company had learned a certain level of helplessness because there was no real accountability and no measurement of business outcome.  The root cause of the poor business outcomes was that the business leadership didn’t want to be bothered with, or didn’t understand, the details of what it would take to deliver on their direction.

Moving an organization or company to a culture of accountability can be a major challenge.  Every time I have approached this kind of opportunity, I start by examining my influence on the leadership.  Sometimes some of the leaders have to be replaced if they’re too invested in the past and have not bought into a new strategic direction.  The bottom line is that they have to be the leaders and sponsors of change and must also model the changing behavior.  I have watched a leader in the midst of transformation pay lip service to the new direction but provide direction to his people completely counter to the new goals.  Employees whisper behind closed doors about the hypocrisy and then cling to the old behaviors until they see examples of their leaders and see that the new behaviors will be rewarded.

Once the leaders are committed to a new organizational direction, measurement of the desired business outcomes allows you to understand what is really happening in your business.  It is invaluable to spend enough time with the right people to crisply identify what business outcomes are important to the organization, what the drivers of those goals are, and then where you might get data that will reflect those outcomes.  Setting up reporting cadences and review forums for decisions and establishing a compensation system reflecting the new goals will be an important component in your new Accountability and Governance System.  However, you need to be very careful to look behind the numbers to ensure your changes are real.  I have seen leaders ask for “exceptions” to measurement for all kinds of “good” reasons.  Once habits are in place, this is ok but until that happens it will be important for a consistent approach.  Transparency and credibility are the keystones to this new accountability and the only path to a healthy corporate culture.

Accountability is a funny thing.  It allows for empowerment and clarity but it also instills fear and provokes defensiveness.  When leadership is ambiguous about expectations, such as insisting on an arbitrary date without consideration for resourcing and/or quality, employees start creating their own scope for execution and hope that what falls off the plate isn’t large enough to be noticed.  Unfortunately, without conscious alignment these plans often conflict, especially when companies are siloed in their functions.  People generally try to do the right things but in this scenario it’s up to each individual to interpret the plan and conflicts arise.  If this lack of strategic visioning and planning persist a culture can form that avoids accountability across organizations.

It is tough to build accountability into an organization when the people are not accustomed to this kind of spotlight.  Transparency is key.  The first reaction is often fear and change agents must be very cautious in their approach.  Data has to be viewed as “friendly facts” that are organizational reflections, not personal performance indicators.  It might sound like a cliché but you have to be VERY careful to be hard on processes and not hard on people.  This doesn’t mean that performance isn’t a part of the problem; however, you have to make sure that you have clear expectations, effective measurements, and strong leadership before you can determine if performance is the issue.  It’s most likely the leadership that has been skating by with little accountability.

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