Accountability is defined in the dictionary as:
The quality or state of being accountable; especially : an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions
Responsibility is often used as a synonym for accountability however frameworks such as RACI distinguish between the two words stating that those who do the work are “responsible” and the individual who is ultimately answerable is “accountable” as only one person can be accountable because accountability cannot be shared. I suppose this may work in non-team environments or co-acting groups but I struggle to see how it can really work in organizations that are committed to self-directed work teams.
For example, let’s take a a football (soccer) team, and apply the RACI matrix to it. Based on the RACI definitions, the players (workers) on the team are not accountable (answerable) for their play or the teams outcomes, only the coach or manager is. Or how about a choir? Should the members of the choir not be accountable for their performance or is the choir director the only one accountable? I wouldn’t want to be a part of a team where my teammates did not feel we were collectively accountable for our results.
George Santanya famously said:
Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
It’s important that we don’t forget that matrices such as RACI are products of project management which is a by-product of scientific management. If you are a manager and/or leader in an organization, hopefully you are aware of scientific management and Taylorism. My experience (unfortunately) however, is that many managers and leaders are not familiar with management theories. Read the label before use, please.
Self-directed teams are accountable for delivering a work product that pleases those who will use or benefit from their work product. Accountability for delivering the work product should be that of the team and not that of a single individual whether that individual is the lead developer, architect, product owner, project manager or simply the smartest guy or gal in the room. Team members are individually accountable for meaningfully contributing to the overall success of the team. If you intend to make one individual accountable for the work product, then you must also give them full control and strip the rest of the team of their accountability. As Stephen Covey said:
You can’t hold people accountable for results if you manage their methods.
Is this something your really want to do?
While we’re talking about accountability, I should point out team accountability is not an idea original to Agile. A review of the work and study done on team-based work structures make it very clear that one of the conditions needed for self-directed teams to be successful is team accountability.
Some of my colleagues in Agile-sphere have an aversion to the word accountability because it often translates to a “who do we blame when things go wrong” culture. I happened to work in an organization with a business unit that had a strong culture of blame. I can recall an experience where a VP wanted me to let him know who on my team would be working on a certain piece of functionality so that he would know who to go to when things went wrong. He wanted to know who was accountable. Unfortunately for him, I wasn’t in the mood to provide that type of information so I ultimately became accountable. I don’t believe that accountability needs to translate to a culture of blame if individuals and teams take both responsibility and accountability. Unfortunately, many organizations are challenged in this area.
If you’re truly making the commitment to self-directed work teams, make the commitment to team accountability as well. More to come on this….
PS: I started this post in October of last year (2014) but never really got to completing it.
1. Leading Self-Directed Work Teams by Kimball Fisher
2. Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances by J. Richard Hackman