Therefore Strategic Technology Services

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

If everyone is accountable … no one is accountable

Disclaimer: - I am in no way responsible for the content of this article. Any errors, exaggerations or omissions are someone else’s fault. In fact … I deny having written it.

Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about accountability.

Since the early 90’s, the concept of taking responsibility for mistakes made at work has become somewhat out of vogue. Who remembers Enron, JPMorgan, Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs? There are plenty of examples that are closer to home - Health and Racquet, Fidentia Group, Regal Bank, Aurora Empowerment Systems and Wendy Machanik.

Politicians too seem to have an absolute allergy to assuming accountability. For the sake of neutrality and political expedience I will refrain from mentioning any names … but I am sure that an example or two springs to mind. The bottom line, give me an answer as to who is really accountable for the Nkandla and Gupta International debacles and I am buying the next round of beers. I suspect that it would be easier to distribute school textbooks in Limpopo than it would be to get an honest admission of guilt.

This aversion to accountability has literally trickled down from heads of state to the chap that runs the local fruit and veg shop. This fruit and veg may be a bit past it … but hey, that’s how I got it from the market. It’s always the next guy’s problem … and no one is ever accountable.

We teach our kids to own up when they've done something wrong, in part so we can trust them. So, it makes sense that the lack of accountability in the workplace has led to a breakdown in trust. I have been doing a bit of digging around regarding the issue of workplace trust and accountability, which I am not going to reference, because … after all, I am not accountable for anything. The long and short of it is that less than a third of employees believe that they can trust management and about a half of employees believe that their companies encourage them to openly admit to their mistakes.

If you think this is an issue not to be taken seriously, you're wrong. A lack of trust poisons a workplace, and any boss with a modicum of common sense will want employees to feel comfortable to admit to and take accountability for their mistakes.

For a workforce to develop a strong sense of accountability, it has to come from the top. Leaders need to speak openly about the importance of accountability and, above all else, hold themselves accountable for their own actions. The message that it’s “OK to make mistakes” must also be put out there.

Making mistakes is an important part of growth. For companies that are playing in the innovation space … each mistake is a step towards victory, because they typically arrive with lessons learned. I very much doubt that Thomas Edison’s first light bulb worked. Thankfully, he did not throw in the towel when the first attempt went up in flames. The bottom line … encourage responsible mistake making. After all, it’s easy not to make mistakes, simply don’t do anything. Now that’s an attitude that you don’t want taking root in your organisation. I have an inherent suspicion of anyone that doesn’t make mistakes, because it generally indicates that they are not trying hard enough to make a difference.

Why the tirade about accountability you may ask? Well, simply put, to ensure that delivery happens on a reliable basis, the folks that are responsible for that delivery need to be aware that they are accountable for making it happen. There needs to be clear consequences for non-delivery or, for that matter, poor delivery.

My special interest is in the space of strategy delivery. Strategy delivery tends to fall apart in environments where the prevailing culture sees staff not being held accountable for delivery. The trick with delivering on strategy, in any environment, is to break the strategy down into a series of tactics, projects and tasks and to allocate each of them to the party accountable for their delivery. Throw some appropriate measurement mechanisms into the mix, align strategy delivery performance to KPIs and you are more than half way home. The Therefore StratIQ™ tool has been designed to provide exactly this support to your strategy delivery drive.

The really good news is there’s a lot you can do about the accountability problem, it doesn't cost money and it feels good. It starts by making a commitment to the fact that ethics are in fact important … and that accountability is a core ethic. It then moves onto acknowledging that it’s OK to make mistakes, as long as they are not perverse or illegal, you learned from them and you were quick to raise your hand when things started going pear shaped. Oh … and don’t forget to share what you have learned from your mistakes.

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