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What is Accountability, Really?

Updated: Sep 3, 2021

To help frame this conversation about accountability, I'd like to preface with a brief discussion of accountability as it relates to integrity. Author C.S. Lewis once said that the definition of integrity is, “Doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” While true in principle, “the right thing” can be subjective. It is shaped by circumstance and often defined only in retrospect. If we remove the lenses of objectivity and hindsight, actions taken in good faith are valid and justified in the moment of execution, if not a moment longer.


In this regard, integrity is not the quality of "always doing the right thing," or being perfect. Rather, it is the ability to objectively evaluate our actions. Stated more simply, integrity means holding ourselves individually accountable. And what is accountability, really? As a leader daily confronted with problems and constraints, accountability is the courage to say, "The buck stops here."


Integrity is the deliberate application of personal accountability. To illustrate this, In January 1967, the three-man crew of Apollo One was tragically lost when a fire broke out and catastrophically engulfed the oxygen enriched atmosphere of the command module during a launch rehearsal. the disaster resulted in the deaths of astronauts Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White. Gene Kranz, the Mission Control Flight Director for the program, could have pointed fingers and assigned blame. Instead, on the somber Monday morning following the disaster, Kranz addressed an assembly of his flight control team with what has come to be known as the "Kranz Dictum", a quintessential display of accountability. Kranz said,


"Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, "Dammit, stop!" I don't know what Thompson's committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did. "


"From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: "Tough" and "Competent". Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write "Tough and Competent" on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control. "

As Gene Kranz demonstrated, in stark contrast to prevailing logic, accountability is both introspective and collaborative . It uses the pronouns "I", "we", and "us", but never "You". If a subordinate is struggling, the team is struggling. If a supplier is failing, the team is failing. Accountability does not play zero-sum games.


"Set expectations and hold people accountable!" one might say. This may sounds appealing, and perhaps even reasonable. In actuality, it is workplace bullying, an archaic practice, outdated and outpaced by more flexible, collaborative, and productive methods. It's a thinly veiled version of, "Do your job, or we'll get someone who will!" a hallmark of uninspired management.


Why must we subject people to adversarial relationships to drive results? To emphasize a point W. Edwards Deming made: If we think about the way we approach personal relationships, for example when disagreeing with our family, Why do we insist on making the other person the loser? Who wants to be married to a loser? Who wants to be the loser? To extend this point, Who would want to do business with a loser? Why do we insist on declaring winners and losers when collaboration is more appropriate and more productive? The true result of this mindset, where passing the buck and abdication of accountability are typical, is destruction of morale and productivity, at incalculable cost.

To further illustrate this point: who shows up to work and sets out with the intent to do a poor job? Do we honestly think that workers are the cause when the plant shuts down? When the company loses market share? It's a patently absurd notion, legitimized with every exclamation of "attention to detail", "vigilance", "try harder", "do better". Did Blockbuster fail because of lazy store clerks? Radioshack? Sears? Was saving the business the responsibility of the cashiers, the department leads and store managers? The only thing they could do was their jobs. In light of this, how can we ever be justified in assigning bad faith, neglect and human error? The failures lay solely at the feet of management. Badgering people to do better will never lead to improvement. Management owns the system. Management must be accountable for fixing it.


Years of research has shown that the characteristics of the system has more impact on the product or results than individual workers. Generally speaking, individual effort or personal vigilance cannot overcome a poorly planned system full of bottlenecks, road blocks, red-tape, gatekeeping, and other wastes and inefficiencies, at least not for long. The very people whose heroic efforts you've come to rely upon end up discouraged, demoralized and burnt-out. Solve systemic problems first, then perhaps you'll be justified in looking elsewhere.


It's likely that you have no metric to calculate the losses of endless churn and rework; Constantly shifting priorities; employee turnover, absenteeism, diminished engagement. These are not problems, they are symptoms of the problem! These folks have been defeated by poorly informed decisions, poorly designed systems, and poorly executed processes. They soon realize there is no way to win, and there is little point to try.

While we churn through employees and suppliers, we suffer both diminishing market share and competitive advantage. In this circumstance, who's accountable? Who hired the incompetent workers? Who signed the contract for the supplier that couldn't deliver? What does the answer to these questions say about us as managers and leaders?


Instead, suppose we suspend our prevailing mental models for a moment. Instead of incompetence or dis-interest, assume that every person in your organization is both engaged and capable. How would you go about solving problems, when forced to look beyond the easy answers of blame? It's all too easy to attribute problems in neglect or carelessness, and doing so is an abdication of our responsibility as managers. As an engineer or doctor must look beyond the superficial to diagnose problems, so must we engage in the science and practice of system management.


Accountability is not fault finding or assigning blame. There is no particular skill in assigning blame, and no particular value in pointing out faults. Those who do either are guilty of substituting sound for substance, and motion for progress. Accountability means taking ownership of the problems that we find and driving towards improvement of the entire system.

As a leader, accountability, perhaps above all else, is paramount to the team’s success. Even the briefest lapse can be divisive. We must ask ourselves these questions, which must be answered in action, not lip-service: Have I created a constancy of purpose? Do I give credit and own failure? Are the standards and expectations clear, and do I enforce them consistently? Do I provide my team with the resources necessary to succeed? Am I invested in my team? Do I value their contributions? Do I define goals and foster their success? Do I have the integrity and courage to do the right thing... when everyone is watching?


For further reading on the topic of accountability, I highly recommend "Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs Lead and Win" by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.


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