by Travis Marsh

So often, accountability ends up being the responsibility of the team’s lead or manager. They have to check in with the team to ensure the highest priority tasks are put first. Some teams take over this responsibility with time and practice, but most remain dependent on their lead.

Team members vary tremendously in their ability to manage their own accountability. Some great people are very forgetful. This variance in personal accountability decreases as the team takes responsibility for itself and becomes more high functioning, but it never goes away. Without someone or something filling the role of standardizing accountability, team performance will be influenced by whatever team member is least capable of meeting their commitments that week.

As a lead, being responsible for the team’s accountability is a tricky skill to develop, because it’s ultimately about controlling other people. There is a very fine line between micromanaging and allowing critical pieces to be missed. And where this line lives varies from person to person. It’s no wonder that new leaders struggle with this skill more than any other.

Between inexperience, external pressures from stakeholders, deadlines, and the desire to see improvement, leaders often try to impose accountability across the team to create higher team performance. Doing so accomplishes the immediate goal while disempowering the team.

Imagine a team being told how to manage their accountability. They can:

1.     Accept the imposition as a necessary evil,

2.     Stop trying to manage their own accountabilities because they know someone else is thinking about it,

3.     Push back, either noticeably or covertly.

None of these are particularly great options, and all of them can create resentment. None of the options help people improve their own accountability. What’s the alternative? 

These four pieces work together to allow teams to take ownership:

●      Invite commitment instead of demanding it

●      Flex to people’s preferred style

●      Leverage peers

●      Rotate being the ‘reminder’

Let’s take a look at these one at a time 

Invite commitment

Allow individuals and teams the chance to say what they would like to be accountable for, by when, how others can tell if it is done, who she would like to be her accountability partner, and how she would like them to check in on her.

An example would be “I’m Trish and in my chosen role as product design lead, I am responsible for crafting the next version of our product. I will complete my initial draft by November 30, will be held accountable by Stephan and Victoria and ask them to do so by checking on my progress at our biweekly meetings. Either of them has the obligation and right to challenge me if I am not meeting my commitments.”

Flex to people’s preferred style

Styles can and do vary quite a bit. If you’re going to ask how people want to be reminded of their accountabilities, it’s important to honor their request. This can range from timing, to communication method, to actual words used. An example might be, check-in with me two days before my due date with Slack and just ask “Project name, OK” 

Leverage Peers

This helps spread the load out. More importantly, if people are accountability partners for each other, or best yet, if accountability is done at the group level, this can make things feel much more equitable. 

Rotate being the ‘reminder’

It takes mental space to keep track of all of the tasks and to check in with others. Rather than this always falling to one person who’s providing accountability, allow team members to rotate through the role. This builds both additional skills and empathy, and it increases group accountability.

Let’s look at an example in practice.

Let’s look at an executive team at a 25 person e-commerce company. There are five executives that all have very different styles and patterns around their personal accountability.

This founder has a keen ability to simplify. That can be a superpower in cutting through complexity, but it can also mean he asks for more to be done than is reasonable, seeing it as simple. So if he relies on his intuition on asking for accountability, it can create a ripple of overcommitting that can slow down the organization and demoralize the team. This is because there are substantially more projects to be done than can reasonably get done. The team culture, driven by the founder’s requests, has been to take on more than can be handled. So, when things don’t get done, there is a tendency from everyone except the founder to implicitly understand that though people were working hard, they were working on too many things. While true, this is also an excuse that prevents the team from growing.

The team agreed to take on a new approach. Everyone agreed to commit to what they’re going to do and how others on the team can hold them accountable. Everyone on the team has a slightly different preferred method.

One exec lists their top priorities publicly on an Asana board. Everybody can see their top priorities along with expected due dates. If he needs to change his priorities, he updates the task. Anyone can subscribe to any task to get updates or to ask him questions for any urgent updates. He groups subtasks to show the various stages that he or other teams are working on over the next ~3 months.

The founder rarely takes time to write down tasks. He finds that it breaks up his thought process. Therefore a public Asana board wasn’t a great fit for him. However, he doesn’t mind if other people capture actions and quite likes having something to refer to. The rest of the team has offered to capture the big nuggets for him. The founder also doesn’t mind if the team pings him on slack for status on a project. They agreed to keep those discussions public so that an update to one person can be seen by the entire team. This reduces repetition on updates dramatically.

The CTO has a tremendous amount of ideas and can lose focus, so he likes to check in and agree on his big priorities when he has context. This works best right after the exec team reviews their goals for the month. He promised to review his priorities after every strategy meeting and send them around that day. If someone needed an update in between, it is typically best to schedule a meeting with the CTO because changes in some areas rippled to other areas.

These are seemingly small tweaks on a form of accountability. The change that enables all of these is that nobody else can add commitments onto someone else without their consent. The founder still petitions people to take on more and presses the team forward. And he has agreed that his requests are just requests and not commitments until others have agreed to take them on.

How do you like people to hold you accountable? What works for your team?

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