An easier way to do ‘accountabilities’

It’s that time of year when many HR/OD areas are sprucing up their performance appraisal systems, our long-term clients included.  It’s all part of an ongoing cycle, so the setting of accountabilities is naturally also on the agenda.

It’s that middle part of the last sentence that I’ve been pondering (because that’s the sort of thing cool people do)…the notion of ‘setting accountabilities’.

I’ve always advised this, I’m often brought in to help with this, and it’s important – any decent research into both performance and innovation shows that clarity of goals is a condition for both performance and innovation (after all, both ‘performance’ and ‘innovation’ are just work, and ‘work’ is the use of judgement to make decisions to achieve a…..goal.  But that’s another post)

Back to ‘setting accountabilities’.  One word at a time.

The word ‘setting‘ carries a certain implication…’set and forget’, ‘set in stone’, ‘we’re set to go’….it all implies that we’re now done, final, complete.  Which makes it seem like a huge deal, and something we can’t get wrong.  Like building a skyscraper.

At the same time, we know the world’s a complex thing and it’s going to change.

So something doesn’t feel right here, and the natural outcome of this is….stalling.  ‘We really should set accountabilities around here’, everyone agrees….but getting people to do it is a battle.  Just ask OD or the business themselves.  No one is having fun.


Onto the other word….’accountabilities‘.  Those who have worked with me know that I’m big on making it clear what people are accountable for, then giving them the authority (resources) to do it.  This includes clarifying to everyone who can ask who to do what (another foundational factor for innovation by the way, the idea that vagueness on this stuff unlocks creativity has been proven false by research).

But this is what occurred to me…people aren’t paid to be accountable for things.  They are paid to produce results that are valued by their customers.  They are held accountable (an action) for producing the results (an observable thing).

And there’s more…accountabilities take our minds back to the ubiquitous role description.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s merit in having the current purpose of every role in the organisation as clear as possible, and writing stuff down forces clarity.   Breaking this purpose down into a few categories can help with more clarity…which is what we often call ‘accountabilities’.

So the idea of settling accountabilities can take us to ‘this means changing the role descriptions’.  Given no one is reading those things anyway, PLUS the fact that changing them requires a degree of consultation….who’s going to enthusiastically jump at doing this?  What do we get ?  Once again…stalling.


So here’s what I propose:

  1. Change ‘setting accountabilities’ to ‘clarifying results.‘  This gets us out of the ‘once and for all’ mindset which makes it all seem a bit full-on, which leads to both doing it only once per year (which means it goes into the bottom drawer), and generally avoiding it.
  2. By ‘clarifying results’, we mean ‘ensuring understanding with each of your people on the 3 to 7 things you want them to deliver, using these two sentences: ‘By….[this date], deliver [this thing], it’s good enough when we see [quality standard].  The resources I’ve made available for you to deliver this are [resources, including others who you have arranged to be involved].’
  3. We change doing this from once per year, to being a ritual that we do as an organisation once per quarter (for instance when the seasons change).  We can even call it ‘results week’ if we want.
  4. We acknowledge that the point is the conversation, and not some document.  Even post-it notes are fine, as long as they cover the bits of the sentence above.

(For people in operational or transactional roles, the results expected would come from how you see that a good job has been done.  For example….’this many customer served, with these customer service scores’. )

If we use the above system, we make the whole ‘accountabilities’ thing a lot easier and more effective at the same time.  And the results that are clarified will generally fit under the generic stuff called ‘accountabilities’ in the role description anyway.

End result is we get what everyone wants….clarity on why they are there so they can get on and do it, plus a ritualised way to ensure ongoing review and change so we can keep up with reality.


Comments are closed.