The Deep Structure of Accountability

accountability leadership Jan 01, 2021

Everyone wants other people to have it.


When you deal with high-accountability people, you love it. You go back for more. You know they'll meet your expectations, and you know they'll take responsibility for any problems -- and fix them.

So where do we go wrong? Why isn't there more accountability in the world?

Simply put, people don't understand where accountability comes from or how it's structured. That leaves them powerless to understand accountability failures, or fix them.

The good news is, once you do understand the deep structure of accountability, you'll never feel powerless that way again.

Start in the upper left hand corner, with Initiate:

All problems with accountability come from somewhere on this diagram, first proposed by Winograd and Flores in 1987.

We don't Initiate clearly with enough detail. We often aren't clear what our full Conditions of Satisfaction are. Everything we don't specify when we are the Asker, either gets left to the Doer to guess, or creates delays when the Doer must clarify later.

During Negotiate, we don't raise the issues or surface the details needed for a clear mutual understanding. Doers often feel powerless to require their Askers to give them what they need for success -- yet during Negotiate, the Doer is at their greatest point of power.

A client firm of mine had friction between the marketing team and their merchandisers. The marketers would call for an in-store promotion on a Saturday morning, but only ask for it late on a Friday. The merchandisers needed 48 hour notice to get their gig workers lined up and committed. When I talked to the head of merchandising, he felt unable to make anything be different. He didn't run marketing, after all.

I coached him to work proactively with his counterparts in marketing, by informing them that he would need 48 hours notice "in order to provide a promise of results" and that without it he could only commit to "best effort" and even then there would be caveats. Further, he could start approaching marketing on Wednesdays to pull from them their plans for that Saturday.

Most problems that arise, do so during Perform. Yet their seeds were planted in the prior phases. How many of us look back at our Initiate and Negotiate steps, take note of our struggles, and figure out how to front-load our communications? Yet that's the key to transforming a team's accountability.

Another challenge during Perform is the inevitable discovery of emergent issues, substitutions, conflicts and delays. ("Sorry, we're out of Oak, can you work with Maple?") Without a prearranged protocol for quickly surfacing these and resolving them, we're begging for delays and miscoordination.

Finally we often skimp on the Accept phase, which is the best place to learn lessons and discover how to work better together next time. A simple Hot Wash or postmortem can yield many learnings. How often do we really do that, versus all the times we shake our heads at "those people" being "that way" yet again, and what can one expect but delays and heartache?

There's a better way.

Look over the Accountability Loop infographic or sign up for the forthcoming Accountability minicourse and start taking back your power to deliver results.

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