Accountability & Agreement

On The Accountability Trap Mike Pierce asked:

Using your distinction Tobias, does it follow that you are accountable to your team?

My immediate response was “yes”, which flies in the face of what I’ve written, so caused me to think a little more about the term ‘accountable’, and prompted this follow up post.

The way the term is mostly used is to establish a power position—to be “held” accountable by a person or group outside of one’s immediate sphere of influence, e.g. a manager, customer, or even a system. This I don’t like, as it keeps us in old-think. But accountability to one’s peers is different.

J.B. Rainsberger pointed out here, and on the LinkedIn Agile Coaching discussion on the same topic, that accountability only works when both parties are in agreement about what that accountability is—and accept the deal. While this is true, and a step up from enforced accountability it could also perpetuate the existing power dynamic that plays out, often invisibly, in many corporations. When we are accountable to our peers though, this relationship plays out very differently.

I do use the term in a team setting, encouraging it, e.g. through the daily alignment meeting we see in Scrum. I like the idea of mutual accountability—following through with what we commit to within our team, and expecting the same of others, calling them out when this isn’t honored. The key difference I see is that within a team, we come to a common agreement about being accountable to one another. When we act in this way we are better able to be responsible for delivering what the customer is requesting.

Accountability therefore is a way of setting a working agreement amongst team members, such that we have a safe framework within which to do our work, to be honorable, to be courageous, and to share problems when they arise. It is only a step though towards the greater good of responsibility, not something to use instead of responsibility.

It is the dynamic we create that matters, less so the actual words we use—although I am a great believer in the idea that language influences behavior. When we use a phrase like “I am accountable to…” it is important to understand what drives that. Is it fear, or is it courage? Are we seeking alignment, or retribution? These are always good questions to ask in any agreement conversation.

[original comments are here]

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