September 2, 2016

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Accountability is Meaningless

Accountability is a word often thrown around as a solution to sluggish performance.  I've heard more than one executive pound the table and exclaim that, "We need to hold people accountable." What does that mean, really?  How does increasing accountability actually change results, or does it at all?  Let's explore what executives might mean.

 

First of all, I have never heard accountability raised as an issue prior to a failure occurring or after a success.  And oddly, even within the same population of employees, accountability can be an issue when a goal is missed, but when those same employees are successful, accountability is not a problem.  Is it possible that the same employees could be accountable one day on delivering one goal but not on another day?  Seems unlikely that this makes any sense at all.  Accountability is a virtue, and one has it or not, if it means anything at all.  It is an unreliable concept if infinitely variable.

 

Accountability is used as a potential root cause after a failure to reach a goal.  Usually a manager is angry about this miss.  Accountability then in this context is code for "someone should be blamed or punished" for the failure. This punishment won't change the past, but it does tend to place blame on others, thereby shifting it from the manager (the subconscious goal all along, perhaps?).  I would posit that I have never heard accountability used in any context other than a punitive one.  It never identifies true cause, only obfuscates and distracts from the search for it.

 

How would one actually install accountability anyway?  I've never heard an answer to this that did not involve some form of punishment or threat.  "We've got to hold our people accountable for the results."  There is always an implied "or else" with this statement.  And that punishment is meant to dissuade others from making the same mistake in the future.  But, if this worked, there would be no one in prison.  Punishment for a past event does not in any way absolutely prevent the behavior from being repeated.  To prevent the unwanted outcome, a fundamental condition or action that produces the undesirable result must be changed.  Punishment does not do that.  

 

Alas, there is an answer.  The real goal in business is to ensure success all the time.  The only way to ensure success is to understand and control the inputs of the process or system that generates the success.  If failure is encountered, then the process was not controlled.  Without defining and controlling the process, no one can control the output, no matter how "accountable" they may feel or act.

 

Accountability, therefore, is a word preferred by those who do not understand how to control processes and default to trying to control people's behavior.  It's an unnecessary vocabulary word in the lexicon of business transformation.  If you find yourself using it, you are making the situation worse without knowing it.  To constrain behavior to that of continual success, one must constrain the processes to elicit only the behavior and results required.  Just fix the process- it's easy and the only effective solution.  

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