I regularly write about a variety of growth-focused strategies, systems, and skills. Yet, while these areas are certainly important, the biggest determinant of success is an organization’s ability to execute. Give me average strategies, systems, and skills with dogged execution and I’ll beat anyone with average execution.
If I could use one predictor to determine how well a company executes, I would very quickly choose accountability. I’ve learned that accountability is a fascinating core component of a company’s culture. While everyone seems to like talking about accountability (and they love to hold others accountable), very few create an effective culture of accountability.
3 Reasons Accountability Efforts Fail
The definition of accountability is quite simple. It means to hold yourself out to account for something. There’s a dramatic Lake Wobegon effect with accountability. While we know accountability is a problem in most organizations, I can’t ever recall a time where someone willingly admitted, “Hey, I’m not accountable here.”
There’s a tremendous amount of effort exerted to create accountability, but few organizations seem to pull it off effectively over an extended period of time. In my experience there are three primary reasons that accountability fails to take hold:
1. Accountability must be bidirectional. The CEO can’t hold a subordinate accountable if the CEO isn’t also accountable to the subordinate. Well, I guess technically they can (they seem to do it all of the time), but it’s not going to lead to success.
2. I remember when I got my first Regional Sales Manager job, my mom got me a coffee mug as a congratulatory gift. The mug had one of my favorite sayings on it, “I want all of the authority, but none of the responsibility.” The reverse of this is another major cause of failure. Too often, executives attempt to hold people accountable actions and/or outcomes, but they don’t give them adequate authority. Effective accountability systems can best be summed up by Bill Parcells, who said, “If you want me to cook the dinner, the least you can do is let me shop for some of the groceries.”
3. To effectively hold someone accountable, you must provide reasonable resources to the person/people you are holding accountable. Charging your marketing department with creating 50 SQLs/month, but not giving them the tools and resources to make it happen is a recipe for failure and resentment.
3 Rules to Build Successful Accountability In Your Company
As a business executive, entrepreneur, and leader I’ve struggled to create a strong culture of accountability. I think I’ve made just about every mistake known to mankind in this area, and, candidly it has had devastating effects. It’s led to the loss of good people, bumpiness in our client experience (leading to higher client turnover), and countless hours of sleep lost (and I like to sleep!) replaying situations in my head.
Over the last 18 months, we’ve improved in this area tremendously. As devastating as the effects had been, the improvements have been equally beneficial. Make no mistake, this process has not been easy or smooth. There are times where it’s downright painful, but the impacts have been clear:
We’re doing better work then we’ve ever done
We’re more consistent than we’ve ever been
Conversations aren’t always fun, but there is less confusion and drama than ever
We aren’t working any harder than we used to (and in many ways, I think the intensity and urgency are less than ever) and our velocity is greater than ever.
How have we done it? Well between learning from my mistakes and having the opportunity to learn from others, I’ve developed these three rules that, I believe, are at the core of our improvement.
1. Never Use Accountability As A Weapon
I’ll admit it, I was a primary violator of this rule (and I still struggle today). I would wield accountability as a knife to express not only my frustration but the objective reality that you failed. I would thrust trite phrases like, “Look, I didn’t tell you this is what you were accountable for, you selected it,” thinking that this made me both innocent and a strong executive.
Of course, the next day I’d say something like, “We’ve got to play to win! If you’re going to win, you have to risk losing. You have to push the envelope and stop being afraid of making mistakes.”
I’m a little embarrassed even telling this story. How foolish I was. In hindsight, it was no wonder things didn’t move as fast as I wanted them to. Everyone was scared they’d get the accountability reprimand from me.
The problem that occurs when accountability is used as a rationale for punishment is that it becomes disempowering, emotional, and judgmental. The real value of accountability is clarity and learning.
2. Accountability Is A Continuous Process, Not an Event
The quarterly rock review. I don’t know who hated it more, me or my employees. It was the day of accountability (not to be confused with the airing of grievances).
Sure, in our (kind of) weekly company check-ins we’d run through our rock review.
Me: Jim, how are your rocks coming along?
Me: Okay, if you need anything, be sure to ask for help.
Jim: Yup. I got it.
And I would repeat that conversation with each direct report. Then we’d get to the target date and suddenly Jim no longer had it, and the objective was not met.
This is not how we do it anymore.
3. You Need to Keep Score
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life selling, managing, coaching, and leading it’s that people are far more effective and aligned when everyone knows the score.
Some of my greatest memories from coaching college baseball occurred when multiple people were involved in determining what we should do, when to do it, and how. Now, when you’re in the middle of a game there are hundreds of things happening constantly and there’s no time to get into a deep-dive conversation about anything. The game creates the context that enables you to have highly complex, nuanced conversations quickly and effectively.
If you don’t have an equivalent game and scoreboard, creating and maintaining the context necessary to build continuous accountability becomes far too cumbersome for most organizations.
Creating The Accountability Game & Scoreboard
After years of trial and error to find an approach that would work for us, we’ve found one that is working well for us. I share this, not because I think we are the role model organization for building accountability (trust me, we and I have A LOT of room for improvement) but to give you a model that, at least for now, is working well for us. Feel free to adjust the approach to work for you.
The 13-Inning Game
At Imagine, we’ve found that that 90-days is the right timeframe for us to balance our BIG long-term goals with the need to be focused on executing now and staying agile to adjust to circumstances that change rapidly.
So, four times per year we conduct the equivalent of annual planning sessions to assess our progress and circumstance and to prioritize needs and objectives. The exercise is completed with the creation and assignment of our organizational OKRs.
The OKRs are then placed in a document like this one:
The 90-Days breaks down to 13 weeks, and thus our 13-inning game begins.
At the end of each week, each person assigned an OKR forecasts their confidence level as to whether that OKR will be achieved. We use the following scale:
Green: high confidence, I predict we will achieve
Yellow: confident, but there is/are issue(s) or obstacles that must be addressed to achieve them
Red: not confident, unless something significant is addressed or changes we will not achieve the OKR
Note, this is a forecast, not a point-in-time assessment. (For example in week 7, the OKR does not necessarily have to be more than 50% completed to be judged “green”).
They Don’t Keep Halftime Records
There are two main benefits that come from this approach:
The weekly review’s rhythm and requirement to forecast keeps the OKRs fresh in everyone’s minds and creates more ownership of the process
The conversation that comes from the scale creates great value by improving clarity and alignment as well as enabling everyone to learn through the process.
This second point is crucial. The score at any given time (green, yellow or red) is not what’s important. Rather the reason for the score and the conversation that follows is what creates all of the value and impact.
This means that you must - MUST - eliminate the judgment associated with the score. You must reward and praise honesty and rationale in the process and constantly reinforce that the process is not about “green” being “good” and “red” means “bad.”
With this approach, people become more comfortable predicting (forecasting) problems while there is still time to do something about it.
Think of it this way: if you’re playing a 13-week game the only score that matters is the one at the end of 13 weeks. If in week 5 you can see that you’re behind, you can much more easily make an adjustment. You’ll notice in football they don’t keep records for teams for where they were at halftime, and you shouldn’t either.