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Accountability: A Recipe for Order

Chaos is contagious

In physics, entropy refers to the degree of disorder or randomness in a closed system, i.e., energy within that system being less organized overtime towards work. Organizational Development experts see the organization as a system that can experience entropy. For example, the Harvard Business Review, in describing an entropic process proffers that as organizations grow larger, they become insular and complacent. People tend to focus more on avoiding mistakes and securing their own positions than worrying about what customers care about. Here, counterintuitively, bureaucratic structures create disorder and breakdown due to humdrum routine and the use of these structures to obfuscate a lack of ownership. To reverse this, the organization should be configured as a more organic and open system to facilitate the injection of new energy and thinking.

The author posits that organizational entropy is self-reinforcing, as the bureaucratic machine drives apathy, which in turn further closes the system to outside influences. The individual and collective cannot simply lift themselves out of this chaos; as such, leaders must calibrate social forces toward inspiring emergent order. In this vein, other authors suggest levers for lifting the organization out of entropy such as refreshing one’s team with outside hires, rotating managers, employee involvement, and facilitating experimentation and collaboration. These levers require a fulcrum, and the fulcrum is accountability. This may seem counter-intuitive at first as one associates accountability with hierarchical cultures; however, accountability is required to foster innovation.

Figure 1 – Lever for lifting the Organization out of Chaos

Accountability as an Institution

Strong institutions have systems of accountability deeply rooted in all their mechanisms. Institutional accountability can be reduced to three components: Responsibility, Answerability and Enforceability:

  1. Responsibility is agreement and acknowledgement of someone’s (e.g. an employee) duty in terms of a scope, duration and quality. This responsibility must have clarity for accountability to exist. This speaks to who is responsible for what, and requires a SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) objective. In some domains such as project management, the RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) matrix makes the distinction that while more than one persons can be responsible for completing a task (e.g. via delegation), only one person can be answerable for that task, i.e., accountability cannot be delegated.

  2. Answerability deals with the fact that someone responsible has to be held to account via some mechanism by which information flows from the person to stakeholders (e.g. shareholders of the organization), or agents of the stakeholders (e.g. a board of directors). What the accountable party is answerable for can sometimes be obscure, especially if responsibility is given in the context of closed systems or bureaucratic silos (sub systems). The logic Model (Inputs, processes, outputs, outcomes and impact) can help stakeholders identify what accountable persons should answer for. Figure 2 – What information should be made transparent The mechanisms for answerability can be manifested in an organization’s reporting and governance systems and should seek to make the right person accountable for the right things.

  3. Enforceability then deals with consequences. Answerability provides the information to those who enforce accountability. Answerability without enforcement undermines accountability. Enforceability acts as reinforcing feedback in the organizational system. Effectiveness reinforced begets more effectiveness. Ineffectiveness must be controlled via limiting reward or even re-assigning the responsibility or role. The mechanisms for enforceability are manifested in an organization’s performance management and even talent management systems.

Accountability as a psychological state

Traditional views position accountability as a state that arises external to the individual, i.e., stemming from contractual arrangements or superior-subordinate relationships. Accountability is also an internal process, and perhaps this is where it ought to start. Personal Accountability is holding oneself accountable and it comes from a belief and attitude that you are responsible for your outcomes and the outcomes of your team. Individuals with this internal locus of control see themselves as part of the problem and seek to share the blame as opposed to casting it. From a systems thinking perspective, the ultimate personal accountability is perhaps where you see interdependent relationships amongst all actors and outcomes in the system, as such you cannot isolate yourself from any failure. Personal Accountability starts with self-awareness about your own short comings. Lack of personal accountability can manifest knowingly or unknowingly in different forms including: 1) over delegation of matters in order to distance yourself from failure; 2) repackaging of issues to detract culpability; or 3) pointing out past record of accomplishment or unrelated successes to maintain moral congruence.

Personal Accountability in employees can be fostered or stymied by several factors (or lack thereof):

  1. Employee Engagement: While responsibility is imposed contractually, a sense of ownership should be fostered. Engagement can reverse apathetic sentiments arising from an entropic environment. Via coaching, cultivate a sense of ownership by aligning the organization’s objectives to the employee’s. Do not broad-brush engagement, but instead tease out causes of apathetic attitudes by exploring situational determinants.

  2. Clarity: Clear success criteria needs to be agreed upon at the start of work activity. Also discuss and clarify interdependencies amongst deliverables of other accountable parties and identify where there may be emergent accountability that has not been assigned to an individual. There should also be clarity in feedback to employees at regular checkpoints about expectations and performance; as opposed to blindsiding employees long after an issue has gone out of control.

  3. Confidence: Build confidence in employees to invoke ownership. Confidence can come from competence. If an employee is competent at a particular activity, s/he will more likely own it. Close gaps in competencies or reassign work accordingly. Employees also become more confident when they are allowed to fail. Being held to account should not necessarily be a punitive exercise but one where support is provided to close gaps.

Accountability as a Culture

Personal Accountability is reinforced more so by the culture in which the individual exists. This is key to breaking free of entropy. An individual’s sense of personal accountability in isolation can be easily extinguished if his/her worldview is not resonating with the system around them. In the same vein of clarity and SMART goals, one ought not to hold persons accountable for things that are totally beyond their control, as this is setting individuals up for failure. However, a major barrier for shifting culture is where one only holds persons accountable for things fully in their control. This requires a shift in perspective from an organization with fixed boundaries to instead seeing the organization as existing within a wider transactional environment that one can influence. For example, you may not be able to control a supplier’s tardiness, however you ought to continuously refine your contractual arrangements or service level agreements.

This culture should be fostered by allowing individuals to step outside of their boundaries without the risk of failure; i.e., provide a safety net for experimentation around solutions that can potentially lead to greater effectiveness. This safety net will allow people to assume more stewardship for outcomes that have no clear owner. This is a balancing act, as you cannot remove enforceability for business-as-usual deliverables. However, with respect to innovation, accountability must take on a different form as there is no centralized approach to innovation. An Accountability culture is where persons take ownership of both success and failure, as such, accountability actually empowers innovation. Here is how one can create a culture of accountability:

  1. Embed Accountability in your strategic framework. Culture transformation starts with your strategic themes, goals and organizational values.

  2. Alignment: Leverage institutional accountability to your advantage by aligning individuals’ goals to organisational outcomes and even enforcing team goals in individual performance appraisals. This will nudge individuals to connect the dots and influence the wider environment.

  3. Reinforcement: Openly reward and recognize where Personal Accountability is demonstrated.

The Accountability of Leadership

The contrasting phenomenon to entropy is ‘self-organization’ which is referred to as Spontaneous Order in the social sciences. This refers to some order that emerges out of random interactions amongst self-interested individuals under the right conditions. While the technocrats argue that unlike organizations, “spontaneous orders” are not created or controlled by humans; the author posits that leaders can foster the right conditions for a more open system through accountability. Leaders must have a nuanced and fluid view of accountability incorporating all of the aspects of accountability discussed herein in order to lift the organization out of chaos. Holding others to account in itself is an accountability. This takes persistency, transparency and courage because holding others to account now puts the leader in the spotlight for providing the support and clarity to employees. Ultimately holding others to account means that you are no longer separating yourself from the outcomes produced by others.


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