Are you confused about accountability too?

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Do you know what “accountability” means? Do you feel your definition is useful and shared by the people around you?

Often in discussions, someone would mention “accountability” and I’d be like… “Yeah! We need more accountability!” or “Hmm… yes, who is accountable here?” or… “I agree, we need to hold them accountable!” but inside I was thinking:

“I hope nobody realises that I don’t know what I’m talking about”

Accountability seems like a simple concept, but I’ve never felt that I’ve had a strong grasp of it. I assumed that I was the only one, but it turns out that lots of people I’ve talked to are unsure of it’s meaning.

Recently I decided it was time to try and figure this out and finally get a firm grasp on the concept of “accountability”. It took a while, but I think I found something useful.

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Whatever it is, it’s definitely really important.

“The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni has sold a gazillion copies and is considered the team building bible. It talks about how accountability is a sign of a high performing team and is pretty much the ultimate goal of team building. After reading a whole load of blogs and articles, that appeared to the be consensus: Accountability is essential to successful teams and organisations.

That really spurred me on to dig deeper into this subject. I wanted to find a definition that helped me and the Agile teams I work in to be successful.

The buck stops here

If I were to summarise the typical explanation of accountability that I read, it would be: “The act of being the sole person answerable for something you’ve taken responsibility for.

That definition doesn’t work for me. Here’s why:

1) Accountability needs to build a generative culture

Often you hear about accountability being used to assign blame. i.e. “Who’s accountable for this mess!” but blame is no way to run a successful organisation. To me, being “answerable” implies assigning blame.

I wanted a concept of accountability which builds a generative culture. A generative culture is a performance orientated, collaborative culture which looks forward and learns continuously. This is in contrast to pathological cultures which are power based and bureaucratic cultures which are rule based. Author of the ridiculously excellent “Accelerate” book Jez Humble describes the importance of a generative culture:

“[Research shows that] the biggest predictor of profitability, market share, and productivity … is how effectively organizations process information … research emphasizes the importance of creating a culture where new ideas are welcomed, people from across the organization collaborate in the pursuit of common goals, where we train people to bring bad news so we can act on it, and where failures and accidents are treated as opportunities to learn how to improve rather than witch-hunts.”

2) Accountability needs to be a simple concept

The difference between accountability and responsibility seems unhelpfully complex. In “Accountable Versus Responsible” Jurgen Appelo says:

“I once tried to figure out what the difference is between the words responsible and accountable. I honestly didn’t know. The words are often used interchangeably. And in Dutch, German, Swedish, Finnish, and other European languages, they even translate to the same word!”

I wanted a simple concept of accountability that didn’t get bogged down in debates between accountability and responsibility.

suspect that a lot of the definitions of the difference between the two comes from people familiar with the RACI framework. This is a framework designed to create clarity about how tasks are to be handled in a team. To me, this checks the “bureaucratic” box rather than the “generative” box.

3) Accountability needs to apply to individuals and teams

The idea that accountability can’t be shared is another theme that I found while researching this subject. I suspect this idea also comes from the RACI framework. Wikipedia states that:

There must be only one accountable specified for each task or deliverable

Agile development is team focused, so having a concept for individuals and then another one for teams isn’t helpful. I wanted to have a single concept that applied to both.

Without further ado. The one definition to rule them all

After much Googling and reading I started thinking I wasn’t going to find a definition that worked for me. Then I stumbled across this gem of an article by Richard Lennox called “Balancing Autonomy and Alignment with Accountability”. Richard has a simple, clear equation to define “accountability”:

Accountability = Commitment + Transparency

That’s the one! Commitment is a simple concept that individuals and teams are typically familiar with. Transparency is also simple and easy to apply to teams and individuals. Neither are focused on blame, but instead on creating clarity on what you’ve said you do and how you’re progressing with it. That sounds like a generative culture to me.

That definition clicked with me and its simplicity let me create a mental model I could apply to my day to day work:

  • Accountability for my own performance
    When you sign a contract to work somewhere, you’re committing yourself to meet expectations set for you. You need to be transparent on how effectively you’re meeting those commitments by providing examples of your work and communicating challenges to your manager. This accountability enables my manager to assess my performance more effectively.
  • Accountability for my team
    Agile teams should be highly autonomous so they can make and act on decisions quickly. Sometimes teams thrive with that autonomy, sometimes they don’t. So they need to commit to measuring their outcomes and their effectiveness and to be transparent about those measures. This accountability allows managers and stakeholders to assess the performance of my team.
  • Accountability for fair assessments of my team
    It’s easy for a manager to be blind to their own biases. Managers should make a commitment to ensure assessments have safe guards put in place to reduce bias. They should be transparent in how their assessments meet that commitment. This accountability allows my manager to assess whether diversity is really being embraced in my assessments.
  • Accountability for quality in a shared codebase
    A messy codebase reduces the speed you can deliver. As an individual contributing to a shared codebase, you should commit to defining and following the quality standards of the code. You should be transparent with your changes in the codebase via code reviews. This accountability allows other people working in the codebase to ensure my changes keep the codebase healthy.
Photo by Jonas Vincent on Unsplash

Does it work for you?

Next time you have a discussion where the subject of accountability comes up, will this definition help you understand what that means and whether it is valuable? I hope so.


Are you confused about accountability too? was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.