Establishing Accountability

How does a leader go about establishing accountability in an organization? 

That is a simple question that would not appear to have a simple answer. If it were that simple fewer people would be asking the question.   

We look at accountability as simply keeping the agreements that we make. To make and establish accountability leaders need be clear on what those agreements are. The two key elements of agreements are the outcomes and the resources.  Establishing the agreement for which a leader expects accountability is accomplished through delegation. 

In delegation, an outcome is a statement of what is expected. A good practice is to state outcomes both qualitatively and quantitatively. For example, a target outcome may be “Increase sales growth (qualitative) from 2% per year to 8% per year (quantitative).” When defining the quantitative value leaders might consider, is this a range or a specific value? For instance, in our example, is success defined as 8%, meaning 7% or 9% are failure? Or is 8% a target with more being better but 7% still acceptable? Is there the possibility of too much growth? For example, would 10% growth outstrip our ability to deliver? 

Resources are simply the means being allocated to deliver the outcome. Resources can be either discrete or perishable. Discrete resources can be applied or withheld. An examples of a discrete resource is a materials or travel budget. Perishable resources are expended as time passes and cannot be withheld. An example of a perishable resource would be the time of an employee who is being paid whether they are working toward the outcome or not. Delegates need to understand both the target outcomes and the allocated resources. To be accountable for outcomes, delegates need to be delegated authority to access the resources needed to deliver the outcome. Leaders who delegate outcomes without a discussion of authority risk having some tough conversations when expectations are not met. 

Note that the outcome does not contain tasks. This does not say “Increase sales growth by doing this and that.” Separating tasks from outcomes helps prevent delegates from confusing outcomes with tasks. That may mean the delegate does not do things the same way as the leader and may even mean some missteps occur. But if the outcome is delivered within the resources allocated does the outcome still have value? 

Sometimes outcomes are constrained in that things need to be done a certain way. Those constraints constitute requirements. If there are constraints, include them as part of the resources discussion. However, before imposing constraints ask yourself is this constraint a requirement or a suggestion? If it is a requirement, it must be done. If it is a suggestion it is how it could be done. Making it clear to delegates the difference between a what is a requirement and what is some coaching on possible approaches encourages the delegate to engage in finding the best approach.  

When the outcomes, resources and constraints are delegated to the accountable person it is important to ensure there is a shared understanding. After the assignment is given, ask the delegate to brief back to you what they understand the assignment to be. Playing back the assignment opens a channel for clarifying, elaborating and adjusting prior to expending resources. 

In summary, establishing accountability requires a process of delegation that identifies outcomes, resources and constraints. The process contains a communication component that encourages delegates to play back what they understand the assignment as being. This in turn sets the stage for open communication throughout the time the assignment is being actively pursued. 

Does your organization have a common delegation process? Is it followed consistently by all leaders? Do delegates understand what they should expect in the delegation process? Is your process resulting in the accountability you need for your organization to succeed? 

Joe Thompson

© 2017 Differentiating Strategies, LLC