Holding Others Accountable

By Chris Chittenden

“It is an immutable law in business that words are words, explanations are explanations, promises are promises but only performance is reality.”

… Harold S. Geneen (1910 - 1997) US businessman

Last month, we began to explore the idea of accountability and how this shows up in an organisational context. The key points were that although the configuration of accountability lies in the organisational structure, accountability ultimately lives in the domain of conversation. For example, you haven’t done something you said you would do and I have a conversation with you to address that breakdown. This month we promised that we would share some thoughts on how to enhance accountability within your organisation and in our interpretation the answer lies in conversational flows and practices. Although, we do not have the space in this e-zine to deal with accountability in depth, let us look at some of the principles of what can be done.

The first key idea is that the basis of accountability is found in creating a clear promise for which to be accountable. In our interpretation it is not possible to constructively hold someone accountable for something they have not promised to do. A promise is a commitment by one person (the provider) to another (the customer) that they will do something by a certain time. This distinction is critical. It is essential to understand that there can only be two people involved in a specific promise. It is this dynamic of the two people that sets up the future conversation relating to accountability because it is clear who has to have the conversation with whom; that there is a shared understanding in regard to what the accountability conversation involves; and an agreed point in time when that conversation can take place if it is needed.

The idea of accountability being based in promises can lead to a different view of the organisational structure as it relates to conversations. Rather than seeing an organisation as a mechanistic structure, we can observe and design an organisation as a web of promises. These promises are created in a way that provides for the flow of process where there is always a customer and a provider. The organisational structure is then formed to systemically ensure the delivery of promises throughout the web. In this interpretation, organisational leaders have a primary role to look at the viability and health of the chain of promises for which they are responsible not simply their part of the organisational structure. In principle, there are promises made to the organisational leader by his direct reports about maintaining the flow of process and promises made between the direct reports to ensure the timely outcomes in the flow of the process. Any breakdowns in this web will likely provide breakdowns in accountability.

One of the reasons that people do not hold others accountable is that there is no promise in place, so any conversation about accountability will not have a clear and shared context for accountability. This often leads to someone simply using force or manipulation to try to get something done and generally leads to breakdowns in relationships and by default breakdowns in the web of promises.

The second key idea we would like to share goes back to an idea we have covered in previous e-zines; the theory of the promise cycle and the practice of “complaining”. In our interpretation, complaining is not whining, bitching or nagging. It is a structured conversation that seeks to take care of relationships by the ensuring the existence of a promise, which has not been kept and making a request to have the unfulfilled promise addressed. (See the article entitled “The Anatomy of a Complaint” at our web site for a more extensive explanation of this conversational practice.)

To sum up, accountability lies in clear promises being made and then engaging in conversations around those promises. If you have issues of accountability, you may well start by looking at how well structured is your organisational web of promises and how healthy is it. Address that and you create a greater chance of obtaining accountability.

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© 2009 Chris Chittenden