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Home > Blog > What's wrong with accountability
Out of Our Minds
Wednesday, June 30, 2004 12:05 PM
What's wrong with accountability
David Weinberger on Making a Difference

Cory Treffiletti at Online Spin writes about what's wrong with being accountable, at least within the PR and ad industries. He says that the push for accountability can undermine the patience required to build a brand. Also, he says, accountability can ignore that you are not in total control of the results of your actions.

Frankly, I never felt comfortable with being held accountable, and not just because I am a cowardly slacker. When bosses start talking about accountability, they often are imagining that work is a simple cause-and-effect affair. Plus, it means you start filling out more forms saying what you're doing and why it matters, which a good boss already knows. (Insert copious exceptions here: ____.) Plus, it assumes that business advances by a million small steps. But some roles in some businesses at some times are chunkier than that.

In sum: Announcing that the company is adopting accountability as a core value usually means that things are going badly so they've decided to make things go worse by engaging in magical rituals that lessen the trust that actually lets companies advance.

On the other hand, I am just a big baby.


8 comments

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David Weinberger - 7/1/2004 3:49:55 PM
Hard to argue with what you're saying. And yet, when the demand for accountability comes from the top down, it's time to flee because they're looking for scapegoats.

Accountability sounds all shiny, but the world is just too random to let accountability work as well as it sounds like it should.

But the personal, integrity-based accountability of me to my peers of which y'all speak is undoubtedly laced with forgiveness. That sounds good to me.
Frank Paynter - 7/1/2004 10:23:51 AM
Perhaps my pointer to Primavera was a little terse. I strongly agree with orcmid's comment. Accountability on large projects is about teamwork. It's about keeping track... runs, hits, errors... sometimes a manager will discover that it's better to put the shortstop on the pitcher's mound and the pitcher at shortstop just based on performance. On a really large project we use tracking tools to provide a measure of accountability. There are all kinds of personal implications here but if we assume that we're all playing with integrity and playing to do the best job we can as a team, well... accountability is just one of the tools we use to tune-up.

Incidentally, if anyone linked through to the primavera site, wasn't the descriptive prose turgid and all 'engineers doing their own marketing by dressing in high-corporate drag?'
orcmid - 7/1/2004 12:54:06 AM
I heard accountability separated from promising and responsibility once, and I found a lot of freedom with it.  It has stuck with me ever since.

For me now, being accountable means being one who provides an account.  It is my declaration that I can be counted on to be clear on what's so, just like the job of an accountant.  So, whatever I have promised and whatever the commitments are, I take being accountable as providing an accurate and timely account.  Then any corrections can be put in, any promises can be restored, and new commitments made based on where we are.  It removed the blaming (and fear) and I find it still takes courage to get my stuff out of the way and simply provide an account.

I had promised my personal coach that I would provide 10 things by the time of our call tomorrow.  Today I called and said I only had 4 things and I was concerned about the 10.  I asked if some of them could be done electronically and he said sure.  Just in talking to him, several other activities for completing the assignment occured to me as well.  It all came out of being accountable.  I am beginning to think that accountability is an essential foundation to integrity.
Frank Paynter - 6/30/2004 5:16:09 PM
http://www.primavera.com/products/p3ec_suite.html#Accountability
Bill Seitz - 6/30/2004 4:38:05 PM
'Plus, it assumes that business advances by a million small steps.'

Worse than that, it assumes that all those steps must be in the same direction.

http://webseitz.fluxent.com/wiki/z2003-08-19-RothmanAccountability
S.E. August - 6/30/2004 3:38:42 PM
First, I recently found your blog and I am loving it. Please keep up the great work.

Second, I get a chill whenever I hear someone say they don't want to be held accountable. Someone has to own something or else nobody owns anything and it's just one big morass of finger pointing. Accountable means 'obliged to accept responsibility.' And, yes, at the end of the day we have to accept responsibility for what we do (and do not) manage to accomplish. We have no problem owning success; we need to own our failures, too.

Third, I believe that accountability improves trust. Show me someone who knows how to fail well (by owning their mistakes, by learning from them, by not being paralyzed by them, and by not being a big crybaby about how things were out of their control!) and I will both respect and trust them.

Fourth, who am I kidding? No one is accountable for anything these days, with the possible exception of weather forecasters. Seems like a rather noble profession, doesn't it?
Kevin Gossett - 6/30/2004 2:59:21 PM
Accountability married to responsibility is absolutely essential to success. Too many times managers hold members of their team accountable without providing the responsibility and authority to do the job.

On the other hand, often managers (and sometimes their team) are given responsibility without being held accountable for what results. Equally bad.

I'll ALWAYS opt for accountability if you give me responsibility too.

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