“Why is no one accountable around here?”
I’m sitting in a senior leader’s office listening to them talk about the challenges of getting the results they want out of their team. It’s been a tough few years. The impacts of the global pandemic and the supply chain created a one-two punch that left the organization reeling. The business results, while not as terrible as some, have not been where leadership – and the Board – would like them to be. This C-suite executive is concerned that their people are not focused on the right things, or anything that might be driving the results they seek. Hence the “accountability” grenade.
Accountability is often thrown around organizations, often by leaders, when they are not seeing what they want out of their people. There is a little motion but not a lot of directional movement. People seem busy but seem to be getting further and further away from effective, or even useful. Accountability is a word that is lobbed around when there is a dissatisfaction with human performance but little understanding of what it takes to effectively drive that performance.
This is when we begin talking about accountability not as a thing, but as a mutual framework that ties together expectations for outcomes to commitments to create and deliver those outcomes. To set expectations effectively you must ensure there is a clear understanding of what is to be done and how it fits with other priorities. This ensures that whoever is setting expectations is explicit about what they want and that whoever is being asked to commit to act knows exactly what they are signing up to deliver. In the absence of clear expectations there can be no true commitment.
The setting of expectations does not forge a commitment either
The executive noted that they had stated what they wanted on several occasions but still weren’t seeing what they expected. I asked if they had made their thinking visible in a way that people would understand what they wanted in light of other business demands, be they project commitments or business as usual process activities. “I don’t think so,” came the reply. I followed up by asking whether they had made the full set of priorities visible to themselves so they knew what they might have to put on the back burner to get the new activities completed. Again, “I don’t think so.” In the absence of a shared understanding of what needed to be done, what might be stopped or delayed, and when and how the work should be completed, was it any wonder that people were not being “accountable?”, I asked. To which the reply was, “Okay, your point is made. What do I do from here?”
At this point we dug into exploring KT’s Situation Appraisal process
Now, many clients will come to us and ask us to help them create a “problem-solving culture”. After my initial reaction, not favorable, I usually steer the conversation in the direction of becoming a more future focused organization. A problem-solving focus means we are constantly in the position of correcting for past mistakes, errors in judgement, poor decision making, actions or plans that were beset by risks that became reality. The highest performing organizations are those that clearly understanding where they are going and use their available resources in a focused manner to deliver the results they seek. Situation Appraisal is a key tool to help achieve that end.
Using Situation Appraisal we make our concerns visible, we better identify specific actions to take, the relative priority and sequence of those actions, and develop clear plans for acting (expectations are established). With that framework of what needs to be done in place, we assign responsibility and gain a commitment to act from appropriate people considering all the other organization actions under way (commitments are confirmed). With those factors addressed we now have all the elements we need to mutually hold ourselves accountable for the future performance of the organization.
Where did this leave our leader? Following our conversation, they began hosting weekly and quarterly meetings during which Situation Appraisal was used to shape the thinking of their team and align them to producing results. They had more productive meetings, their quarterly business reviews moved from being report-out sessions to planning sessions, and the overall performance of the organization began to lift. The bottom line was that “Accountability” was no long a grenade, it was an established fact and clear thinking had led the way.