One of the most sacred tenets of management is the need for clear accountability. As such, organisations spend enormous amounts of time and energy defining jobs, roles, and goals — and then figure out who to reward or penalize when things go well or poorly. The assumption, of course, is that people will perform more effectively if they know exactly what they are supposed to accomplish and what will happen if they make or miss the target.
But the reality of organisational life is never quite so black and white. More often than not, accountability is muddled, rewards are misapplied, consequences are watered down or never occur and people do not see the direct connection between results and recognition.
There are three common reasons that organisations fall into accountability traps like these.
The first is the complexity of your organisation’s structure. Most companies have some version of a matrix, with a combination of enabling ‘functions’ (such as marketing, HR, and finance) and line business units. In many cases there are further distinctions between ‘head office’ and ‘field’ units and multiple levels of geography-based teams (regions, districts, countries). Trying to nail down accountability across these structures is extremely difficult, especially when each one has its own budget and priorities. In a large trading company, for example, the key account executive is technically accountable for a few major customers and has to work with the leaders and staff of many organisational units in order to get anything done. This makes it virtually impossible to hold the account executive accountable for results.
The second reason is that work processes are constantly evolving and cut across different units. Because of these upstream and downstream interactions, it’s often difficult for people to know whether their actions have impact, or how changes in one part of the workflow will impact others. As a result, it’s easy for managers and employees to say that they did their jobs well and any problems must have been caused somewhere else.
The third and most significant reason for blurred accountability is that people work hard to avoid it. There’s truth in the old saying, “Success has many parents but failure is an orphan.” Managers are quick to take credit for good results but are often reluctant to accept responsibility for failure. This is especially true in cultures that blindly penalise people for missing their numbers, trying things that don’t work or delaying deadlines in the face of other pressures. To avoid career-limiting consequences, managers go through all sorts of gyrations to diffuse or redirect accountability, such as: blaming others, referring to circumstances outside their control, shifting resources to other areas, reorganizing, changing measurements mid-stream or any number of other creative deflections.
Of course, accountability is difficult to nail down. But it’s not impossible.
The fundamentals of any organisation are the division of work. From the moment the very first founder brings on person number two, an organisation is born. From this point, tasks are divided up. You do x and I’ll do y. As the volume of work, people and complexity increases, this division of work becomes harder and harder to manage. But groups are formed to make it easier again. Operations split from sales and marketing, planning from maintenance… But, there is often a need for multi-disciplinary working. A need to ensure certain things really happen that currently might not be happening.
The concept known as Responsibility Assignment Matrix (also known as RACI) serves this purpose. It defines who is responsible for what. Its aim is to provide clarity to everyone - both the person responsible for any given activity and those around them.
RACI is an acronym which stands for Responsible, Approving, Consulted and Informed.
RESPONSIBLE: ‘The Doer’ - The doer is the individual(s) who actually completes the task. The doer is responsible for action/implementation. Responsibility can be shared. The degree of responsibility is determined by the individual with the ‘A’.
ACCOUNTABLE: ‘The Buck Stops Here’ - The accountable person is the individual who is ultimately answerable for the activity or decision. This includes ‘yes’ or ‘no’ authority and veto power. Only one ‘A’ can be assigned to an action.
CONSULT: ‘In the Loop’ - The consult role is individual(s) (typically subject matter experts) to be consulted prior to a final decision or action. This is a predetermined need for two-way communication. Input from the designated position is required.
INFORM: ‘Keep in the Picture’ - This is the individual(s) who needs to be informed after a decision or action is taken. They may be required to take action as a result of the outcome. It is a one-way communication.
The process of a task/assignment has five steps.
1.Identify work process. Start with high impact areas first. Don’t chart the process that will soon change. Define well the work process.
2.Determine the decisions and activities to chart. Avoid obvious, generic or ambiguous activities, such as: ‘Attend meetings’ - ‘Prepare reports’. Each activity or decision should begin with a good action verb -- Evaluate Schedule. Write Record procedure. Prepare Update Collect. Publish Report. Review. Authorize. Decide.
3.Prepare a list of roles or people involved in those tasks. Roles can be individuals, groups or entire departments. You can include people outside your department or outside the company like customers, suppliers, etc. Roles are better than individual names. The RACI chart should be independent of personal relationships so the chart would still be valid if all new people filled the roles tomorrow.
4.Develop the RACI chart. As a general rule, first assign the Rs then determine who has the A, then complete the Cs and Is. For larger groups or more complex issues, an independent facilitator is required. Meeting time can be significantly reduced if a ‘straw model’ list of decisions and activities is completed prior to the meeting.
5.Get feedback and buy-in. Distribute the RACI chart to everyone represented on the chart but not present in the development meeting. Capture their responses and revise the chart as appropriate. Reissue the revised RACI chart. Update as necessary on an ongoing basis. The ideal group size is four to 10 people. A follow-up meeting may be necessary if significant changes are made.
Finally, a word for the managers! Accountability is difficult to nail down. But it’s not impossible. Start out by doing the following:
First, try to understand the reasons for unclear accountability. Use the three reasons listed above as a starting point for a discussion with your team. Identify the cultural patterns that characterize your organisation and think about ways to overcome them.
Second, make it clear who is accountable for what and how results will be measured. Make sure you set these rules before starting any cross-functional assignment. At the same time, communicate the upside of success and the downside of failure, so no one needs to guess what will happen.
Third, appoint process champions. Especially for activities that cut across different parts of the company, senior executives who initiate, oversee and support a project will have end-to-end responsibility for achieving the desired metrics. These are difficult roles to play since they often come without full authority for all of the resources, but they are a step in the direction of single accountability for dispersed activities.
(Lionel Wijesiri, a corporate director with over 25 years’ senior managerial experience, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)