its not accountability you’re looking for

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In nearly everything i read on organizations, collaboration and management they use the word. It comes up in meetings too. Accountability. But few actually say what they mean by it, and most hear “You’ll be publicly flogged and fired if it goes wrong”.

That’s not accountability – its management by fear.

I will be accountable for that – means I will take the blame if it fails.

I am committed to that – means I will do what it takes to succeed. Different. I will figure out what the problems are, I will face up to them, I will figure out how to solve them. That’s commitment. Not accountability.

Why do things fail?

Bad or vague goals, unreasonable expectations, changes in external factors, bad planning, ineperience and mistakes,… there are many reasons they fail. I don’t have data – but I’m going to begin to look for it – to say that the number one reason things fail is because no one cared enough or was committed enough or brave or humble enough to say “somethings wrong – maybe its my fault, maybe not – but its a problem, and I’m going to own it and deal with it”.

That’s commitment. And its also ver important to be clear on what we’re committing to.. Are you commiting to a date, a process, or an outcome?

Is our  government accountable to the people? Yes, in that we can fire it when we don’t like it. Is it committed to the people? That’s a different question, isn’t it. Egypt found a way to make Mubarak accountable to them – they took that power for themselves, and we are all humbled and inspired by that. But accountability is just the entry fee of  what they want from their next leader. Not to a list of demands, but to an outcome – an outcome that is about political, religious and other freedoms, security and prosperity of the people.

In the office, its a different thing entirely of course. When you talk about accountability you create a blame based culture where the majority of effort is spent taking credit and shifting blame. because that’s what accountability does. It makes you want to get out of the way.

A commitment culture on the other hand is where we’ve got each other’s backs – because we’re committed to the outcome – and want to do what it takes. In a commitment culture, finding and seeking out problems and addressing them head on is a deep core value. In an accountability culture, it is at all times unwise to go looking for trouble – unless you’re trying to shift it.

It means problems are hidden or ignored. Opportunities are always lost. No is the only answer.

Commitment however is a very personal thing. You need the right people, they need to really understand their goals. They cannot have conflicting underlying agendas. They need to be in it together and to win it – they need to respect one another enough to ask the tough questions – about the issues, not question each others credentials. And trust each other enough so that when something’s wrong, they don’t want to hide it for fear of being attacked.

The accountability culture is the dominant norm. Changing that is not easy. It involves leadership, attacking very uncomfortable issues. It involves a detente. It requires that the organization have a clear purpose and that all the work is aligned around it.

Ok – this is a bit more of a rant than a serious paper, but its a blog, so that’s allowed sometimes. Just please think about changing that one word might do for you.

What would be different if, instead of demanding accountability, you sought commitment from the people you work with?



  1. RJ – Thanks for commenting. I agree that accounting the tale is a useful form of commitment. But like many terms, this one has been distorted by how its been used these last few years.

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