When Did Accountability Become Passé?

From customers’ and suppliers’ viewpoint, Company X is fast growing, exciting, and high-energy. Inside, though,Diamantini & Domeniconi and designed by Tak Cheung  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.

Originally published in Harvard Business Review

Realizing Innovation's Full Value

Many of us agree innovation = invention + commercialization.  Commercialization is usually defined aslaunching the ‘invention’ so you and your customers realize value.  But how many of us include how well we’ve extracted the innovation’s value in the market as part of our innovation process?  Probably, not many; it’s just not that easy.  Whirlpool, a long-time innovator, discovered that many of its innovations were not succeeding as planned in the marketplace.  Moises Noreña, Whirlpool’s Director of Global Innovation, was tasked with finding out why and fixing it.  He recently detailed how they went about it.

Moises created a team to focus on the go-to-market aspect of innovation.  They discovered innovations were handed off to traditional market category teams and included in existing product lines.  So, when the innovation didn’t seem to sell well, the usual excuses were given: the product was too expensive, it didn’t work as promised, and consumers need to be converted.  So, what was going on?  Apparently, the innovation & marketplace performance processes were separate and mutually exclusive so products were killed because non-traditional go-to-market options were not explored.  In addition, business leaders frequently confused experimentation with market research leading to unrealistic expectations.  Bottom line? The issues were cultural and process – self-reinforcing both positively and negatively.

A very thoughtful and comprehensive approach was taken to address how to really extract an innovation’s value in the marketplace.  I encourage you to read the details here. Whirlpool’s values were the foundation for all approaches: teamwork, respect, diversity and collaboration.  The approach included selecting the right pilot to test, in this case, a pilot right in Whirlpool’s core – laundry; challenging the status quo; integrating innovation and marketplace performance processes; and having the business ‘own’ and take the lead for the pilot.

The pilot was a success, resulting in the creation of a new process.  Many new insights and ideas were created that translated into actionable opportunities for development, sales and operations with significant revenue potential.  Perhaps more significant were the intangible benefits.  The team’s common pilot experience resulted in a common consumer language, aiding understanding of and empathy with consumers’ issues.  Result? The team started dreaming about other business opportunities with a sense of camaraderie and hope not seen in the standard S&O process.

How can you apply Whirlpool’s learnings to your company? What can you adapt and apply?  Provide your experiences, comments, suggestions in the comment, at Moises’s MiX story or email me.  Let’s leverage each other’s learnings!

Packaging Up Innovation & Radical Management

In May, I was honored to be part of Steve Denning's workshop on his Radical Management principles for redefining 21stCentury management.  Recognition that we need to find a new way to ‘manage' work is gaining ground. We tend to think of 21st Century ‘new management' companies as those in ‘cool' industries: Internet, tech, alternative energy, social media, etc. These companies shun command-and-control!  However, there are some "old" "boring" companies that are surprising 21stCentury.

So, think packaging. You know, those brown boxes that your amazon books come in? Those displays at the end of store aisles that get you to buy more snacks? It's a commodity business, ruled by big huge vertically integrated behemoths with entrenched hierarchies held sacred.  Kind of boring huh?  You bet...not!

In the middle of Wisconsin (not Silicon Valley) is a 163 yr. old, private family business that reinvented itself, pulled a few classic "Blue Oceans" and looks more like a 21st Century newbie than a 19th Century oldie: Menasha Packaging Corporation (MPC).   MPC views their transformation as a journey, not a destination.  Their success is due to their most important asset - people.  And it's not just words, its action based on their values.  MPC has organized itself not as a traditional hierarchy, but as a network to enable and foster their culture.

A small headquarters organization is focused on removing obstacles and leveraging synergies while maintaining a strong entrepreneurial culture in each business.  Instead of centralizing the usual functions and capabilities, MPC relies on standardization, when applicable, to drive efficiency without bureaucracy.  Additionally, if one business has expertise another business needs or could use, it's shared in a center of excellence construct across heterogeneous businesses within MPC instead of being duplicated.  This allows each business to use its resources more innovativelyeffectively and efficiently...a rather unique approach for an ‘old' company.

In one business, an employee created an engaging way to identify and monitor safety issues.  To her, this was just a normal thing to do - see a problem, create a solution.  Soon it spread through the plant and shifts, becoming named "Safety Snags".  Eventually, this became an internally branded initiative throughout MPC.

MPCs culture of customer co-creation is based on listening to customers, quickly creating prototypes set in realistic environments, getting feedback and iterating the experimentation/prototyping until its right. This is also done across MPC businesses to find the right solution.

My initial perception when I started working with MPC, of an old manufacturing company, was quickly changed, and continues to be.  It is not just the new, young, hip companies that are reinventing management and seeing the results.  So what does this say? That it is really possible to create and sustain innovation in established companies.  Perhaps, it starts by innovating management itself.