The importance of accountability

If you haven't mastered accountability within your team then you can't become a productive organisation

A lot of confusion about accountabilities at work often comes about because power is not distributed in a natural way. In a typical organisation there are positions that hold more power even if they aren’t the subject matter expert.

You may handle a specific area of the business but you aren’t always the one making the decisions. Instead you are being trumped by managers, VPs or the CEO.

All of this can cause a very confusing environment, because it’s not clear exactly what you are accountable for. It seems to change daily or depending on who is in the room. Clear accountabilities can be achieved when work is focused around the roles rather than the position.

The power in an organisation structured this way is more fluid, and it allows roles a certain autonomy to make decisions and drive progress.

There is a big fear in moving to an organisational structure that is more holacratic, because people think this fluid power will create chaos. But each of these roles is built with a purpose that ties into the company’s purpose, and is given specific metrics to measure whether or not the person in that role is successful.

But clear accountabilities and extension of autonomy in roles can move a company toward its purpose with more agility and employee buy-in.

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Implicit and explicit expectations

Expectations that aren’t communicated can grind progress to a halt. Not only do these implicit expectations result in confusion over tasks, they also cause tension in relationships.

Clear accountabilities help eliminate these implicit expectations. They can help us have more adult relationships in the workplace. Rather than allowing tensions to rise in situations where expectations aren’t clear, it is up to you to bring these things to light and make them explicit. Holocracy give employees the power to do this.

When employees are encouraged to clarify expectations solutions can be reached and progress can continue. If employees are not encouraged to do this relationships can be damaged, and work is usually dropped. When accountabilities are not clear there can be a lot of talk with no action.

For example, as a founding member of Dev Bootcamp one leadership meeting I came in with a problem. I was having a hard time understanding why (in an incoming cohort of 30) only two of the students were women, when our main purpose as an organisation was diversity.

When we started talking about the issue everyone had ideas. We talked for two hours but finished with no clear plan of where to go… just a lot of good ideas. I came back the following month with the same problem, but nobody wanted to keep talking about it. We couldn’t take all of our leadership time talking about one subject.

This problem could have been solved through having clear accountabilities. Either someone should have been accountable for making the decision on how we were to deal with the issue and initiated action, or we should have realised that nobody is accountable for it and move to clarify someone who can then have that accountability.

Sovereignty and entrepreneurism within roles

Once people are clear about their accountabilities, and understand what they are responsible for delivering, it creates sovereignty. They have a sense of ownership over their roles.

If they know what they are responsible for they will do what it takes to fulfil the metrics associated with that role. Their ability is put into achieving these metrics, and they then have the room to try things, make mistakes, make decisions for themselves, and get help when it is needed.

Having specific and actionable feedback and evaluation mechanisms is key in measuring people's success in roles. Having clear accountabilities alone is not enough. You must also have a way to evaluate performance. Metrics can ensure the sovereignty employees have is still in line with the organisation's purpose and work isn't being dropped.

It is this pairing between accountability and specific measures of success that drives progress. When clarity comes productivity will follow.

Karim Bishay is principal consultant and Living Orgs, a training and coaching consultancy particularly focused on holocracy