HBR Post: Let's Bring Back Accountability

This was posted on HBR on Monday July 30th - 

From customers' and suppliers' viewpoint, Company X is fast growing, exciting, and high-energy. Inside, though, it's a tornado. Fighting fires, arguing over who committed to what, why it didn't happen, and noticing things that fell through the cracks in just enough time is normal.

How can this happen when they have weekly departmental meetings, keep track of action items, and post projects and timelines everywhere? Easily! There is no accountability. They don't hold each other accountable for commitments. They've seen what happens when you fail, and it isn't pretty, which undermines individual commitment. Requesters frequently change their minds, reprioritize, or create new, more urgent projects without ever really closing the loop on the old ones.

The Bell Labs culture I grew up in had a strong sense of accountability. When you're working on things that literally change the world, it's easy to be committed to something bigger than yourself. The "Labs" culture meant failure was a viable option. Success was discovery and application, not climbing a corporate ladder. At AT&T, the culture was the opposite. While I was privileged to have great management, the majority of AT&T focused on the bottom line. Failure was not an option. When I left AT&T and started working with many companies, I realized this culture was more the norm, not Bell Labs. That's why I believe culture creates (at least?) two reasons for people's struggle with accountability.

First is the fear of failure. Even before kindergarten, we're taught failure is bad. What if we can't do it or do it right or something goes wrong? So, we whittle down the scope, involve others so blame can be shared, make resource requests we know won't fly, or let our fear hold us back from really creative solutions.

Since "failure is not an option" is still the modus operandi in most organizations and the odds of success are never certain, accepting accountability can be very risky. What if I can't deliver? What if the people I need to work with won't make the time or collaborate? What if factors I can't control impede or inhibit success? Will I get a poor performance appraisal? Will I lose prestige, status, or my promotion? If there is a downturn, am I going to get cut? Unfortunately, these are natural, normal responses to accountability.

Accountability means putting our word and reputation on the line. Someone is counting on us — and we should care that someone is counting on us. If failure's not an option, that can feel like too much of responsibility — or a liability — to take on.

The second problem is a lack of commitment on either or both sides. Either we don't believe the request is important enough to make us change our priorities, or we don't trust the "asker" to keep his end of the commitment. If the requester keeps changing his mind, his priorities or timelines, then it's tough to accept accountability for the outcome. Trade-offs have to be made which means sacrifice — of time, priorities, perhaps things we are passionate about. Accountability works both ways, and if one party isn't really committed, it can undermine the entire project.

Realities of 21st century business make accountability even more daunting. In the "old" days, a commitment's path to success was fairly clear, linear, defined and prescriptive: follow this framework or process, and you'll get there. Today, the path is usually messy, ambiguous, paradoxical, and maybe unknown. We may need to create our own frameworks and processes. It's a discovery, not a prescriptive process, with many ways to get where we're going, not "a" way to succeed. Success itself has changed; it used to be via a tangible output, a new product or service, a "thing" based more on what was probable than possible. Success today can be both tangible and intangible, like new learnings, viewpoints, networks, or opportunities, where we look for what is not just probable, but possible.

So, how do we help our cultures, ourselves, our people overcome the fear of failure and commit in a uncertain world? I have a few suggestions based on my experience in both accountable, and unaccountable, company cultures:

  • Communicate100. Communicate why the request is important to the organization, to both of you, and how it's fulfillment will make a difference. What may seem trivial to us may be profound to someone else. To commit, we need to believe in something bigger than just ourselves or the organization, such as the mission and purpose of the organization. That is how we start changing behavior and making new habits.

  • Make sure that you're present to support the request and remove or mitigate obstacles. Meet regularly to identify potential challenges and opportunities before they become a major problem.

  • Re-prioritize responsibilities and tasks to allow the person or team to complete the request. Don't just add on. Not everything is urgent and important. Seriously, show your commitment to the request you've made. If it's not worth re-prioritizing, then it isn't worth asking.

  • Create ways to eliminate or minimize the stigma of failure. Focus on what's been learned and how that applies, watch how you react to and treat the person, how you discuss it with others affected by the result and how you let it impact that person's future success in the organization. Even if you can't change the organization's performance management process, your own personal demeanor and handling has an enormous impact.

I've also started to experiment with using the classic virtues to help improve accountability, but don't have enough data' to posit it as a suggestion above yet (though it can't hurt).


Accountability is important on so many levels — professionally and personally. Let's create the environment where it's easier to have it be the norm than not.