It’s All About Accountability

Some years ago, while I was employed by a well known corporation in the UK, I worked with a team from one of the big consultancies on an organisational transformation project. Whether it was successful is debatable, I think in the main it was, others disagree. That I learned a lot and was changed by it is without doubt. I recall it costing many millions of pounds. I am of course, worth it. I also made two very good friends in the process. Both began from positions of conflict and mistrust, each is a separate story best saved for another day.

I learned about big topics like operational planning, organisational design, resource strategy, vendor management and project portfolio management. I took my first steps, though without realising it, into culture development and had the shocking realisation that the person in my life I knew least well was myself. I’d never really thought about what I was like very much. That was quite a shock.

In the middle of all that I learned that I have a behavioural tick, a tell, something that gives away when I am frustrated, not bought it, that I think you are an idiot, no matter what I might say.

It is not a dramatic gesture, I don’t cry blood. I just take my glasses off and put them on the table.

I discovered this in a progress review in the middle of that transformation project. Someone said, “It’s all about **some fad or other**”.  I can’t remember which fad it was supposed to be “all about”, people, process, tools, strategy, contraints, culture, take your pick.  The glasses came off and were quitely placed on the table and a few people chuckled.  I didn’t even know what I’d done. 

“So why do you disagree, Anthony?”.

“I haven’t even said anything!”.

“The glasses are off, you plainly disagree, it’s what you always do when you think other people are idiots”. 

I had indeed been thinking they were all idiots.  I then wondered how often I removed my glasses in meetings and how long everyone had perceived this insult for what it was actually was.

It was all good humoured.  Frankly, I told them out loud that I thought they were all idiots quite often anyway.  Usually, I was informed, a few seconds after I’d taken my glasses off.

Perhaps I expected to get into a fight. Taking my glasses off is quite sensible in those circumstances.  

Anyway, whenever anyone says, “It’s all about **insert fad**”, I still take my glasses off, I probably sigh loudly and then likely kick off about fads and over simplfications.

There is one exception to that,  if someone says, “It’s all about accountability”, I wheel out another tell,  the one that says, “I think you are probably right but I am not sure I dare say so just yet, do go on”. It involves me half smiling, half wincing, while almost imperceptibly nodding and looking you right in the eye.  Becuase I think you might actually get it.

I have quite a list of fads, I am vertitable Mr Toad, serially excited by the next big thing.   I even utter the phrase “It’s all about **lazily insert latest over simplification**”, myself from time to time.

But I have noticed that despite all our fads, the things we think it is now, “all about”, we need to remain accountable no matter how our institutions, social norms, laws evolve. For our fads to become part of a sustained, valuable and ethical whole, be that corporate, charitable, sporting, social, religious, poltical etc. etc., without triggering unintended negative consequeces so great they outweight the benefit and so as to maximise and accelerate the positive, you have to add accountability.

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6 thoughts on “It’s All About Accountability

  1. Very interesting. I often wonder about the lexicon used in the workplace since, as you suggest, it tends to bounce between various fads that do not appear in the real world outside of work. For example, do you ever talk to your wife about the synergies between the fridge and the cooker ? Or accountability for getting the Sunday papers ? We invent all of these things at work because, IMHO, it makes us feel important and makes us sound like we know what we’re talking about.

    Even your project about “organisational transformation” is a bit crap when you think about it. What did you transform it into ? A field of hippos ? A bunch of carrots ? A mug of bees ? They’re still people, at work, doing jobs, acting vaguely like human beings for the most part. It’s depressing that consultancies have built huge multi-million pound businesses off the back of meaningless faddy mumbo-jumbo and, even more depressing that large corporations fall for it. Your comment about it being one of people, processes, culture etc could have come out of any consultant instruction manual like some kind of missing words kids game. I imagine the conversation going something like:

    Bob Partner: “What’s the project ?”
    Jonny Consultant: “We’re not sure. Something about organisational transformation I think”
    Bob Partner: “Can we change their culture ?”
    Jonny Consultant: “I think so, but we’ll need to change their processes first”
    Bob Partner: “Excellent. Just make sure they know who is accountable”

    and so it goes on. Eventually Bob Partner retires, safe in the knowledge that it’s not actually all that weird to create a Gantt chart to plan his holiday to the Lake District every year, and Jonny Consultant bounces from client to client rolling out the same drivel thinking that one day, Bob Partner may invite him to spend time in his caravan.

    But back to my point. In my view we have built a corporate world where the word “accountability” is misused and misunderstood. We wrapper the word around other management twaddle when what we actually mean, when it comes down to it, is “are you going to do what you say you’re going to do”. It’s not a hard concept. If you say you’re going to pick up the kids from hockey / ballet / the tattoo parlour and you don’t, there’s probably hell to pay with your wife / the police / social services. But nobody would suggest you’re “accountable” for picking up your kids when, in fact, that’s precisely what you are. So why do we overuse that word at work ?

    I have another expression that I often use which I think is far more appropriate: JFDI.

    • I know what you mean,  we don’t use the word accountable at home.  

      But then I don’t just apply it to work.

      I’d use it in any institution.  A corporation, a charity, a religion, a political party, a court or a club.

      I need to think on why we don’t use it at home.  I don’t think its becuase it corporate.  I think there is something about the family that means it doesn’t apply.  I suspect it is that families are bound by more implicit things trust, interdependence and love and institutions by more explicit things like rules, regulations, process, policy.

  2. I am not sure which behavioural tick might be a marker for commitment, but without that, accountability is just another ephemeral **insert fad de jour**. Commitment is where the real work gets done. Accountability is just keeping score.

    Great post, Anthony. Look forward to reading the series that this is threatening to incite in you.

    Best, Ian

  3. Interesting. Awhile ago I was reading some Seth Godin book or other and he made the point that corporate-ese has evolved to increase the efficiency of communication in large enterprises. The idea goes something like:

    “Bob, remember you are accountable for strategically leveraging those near adjacencies”

    In this case, ‘accountable’ acts as corporate shorthand for:

    “Bob, remember this conversation and we both know that because I used the ‘a’ word, there is evidence backing up the fact that this conversation took place and you should take the responsibilities of your new (and possible impossible) task seriously”

    I have yet to discern that the corporate shorthand behind ‘leverage’ or ‘synergy’ is – I think that are probably just filler words used to link words with actual semantic meaning together.

    My point is, corporate-ese is fine in a corporate. It reinforces corporate behaviour and saves time. I try not to use corporate-ese, but that is because I don’t like corporates very much.

    One of my favourite tells was from a previous boss of mine who used to say “I’m a simple guy, so just explain it to me in simple terms”. It was obvious to all that this meant “I am the smartest f***ing guy in this room and you are doing a really bad job at explaining things, so I now doubt your competence or level of understanding”.

    From a personal point of view – my tell is that I use ‘interesting’ in a pejorative sense.

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