When things aren’t going well, particularly closer to the top of the organization, there can be a rush to hold someone to account. Accountability is an important aspect of high performing teams. And if you are truly interested in trust and accountability, what we’ve been talking about in the first two parts of this 3 -part blog (i.e., commitment) must come first. Teams need a structure and a rhythm of managing their work as a network of commitments, and leaders and team members need to be able to distinguish true (strong) commitments from shallow ones. In these conditions, given time and some coaching and a healthy perspective on accountability, teams will build trust and build the muscle of reliably meeting their commitments, even in turbulent times. So, what is this healthy perspective on accountability?
In our experience, team members learning to operate from commitment and build trust will vary in the extent to which they take ownership for the team’s desired output. Some team members will only be ready to take responsibility for how they spend their own time, others will take responsibility for setting their team mates up for success, and a few will already be taking full responsibility – personal ownership for the team’s intended outcomes. When a team is learning how to operate from commitments, effective accountability is what can get the whole team up to that last level of ownership.
Recall in the second blog of this series, team members operating from commitment need to manage their commitments, and most importantly, whenever they determine a commitment is in jeopardy, they need to provide an early warning immediately. This way of operating together, of course, needs to be agreed to by team members up front. When all agree, and commitments are missed without an early warning, there needs to be accountability. It is critical to do this without blame and in a way that increases rather than impedes team commitment. We call this the “breakdown conversation” and it is structured around 3 questions.
Question 1: Are we aligned on what happened here? By this, we don’t mean what got in the way, and certainly not excuses. Rather we mean is it agreed that a commitment had been made, that it has not been fulfilled as promised, and that an early warning was not received? This is not always a given. When teams are still learning how to make requests and commitments, there can be different interpretations of whether a commitment was made in the first place. For example, we’ve had a Purchasing rep show up to a Review Meeting and say, “We don’t have that part yet, and the supplier hasn’t been answering my calls.” Yes, the Purchasing rep had originally said the team would have the part by yesterday, but he interpreted his commitment to be staying on top of the supplier. He was doing that, leaving messages each day but getting no response. However, in the commitment-based approach, no matter how many calls he left, if the part is not in when promised, the commitment has been missed. Because this conversation is taking place in a team meeting, everyone leaves with a clearer interpretation of what committing to a deliverable means.
Question 2: What if anything is missing that would prevent completing this commitment? Is the original owner still the most appropriate owner? Does he need help to complete the commitment in a timely fashion? Are there decisions that need to be made prior? And, any other questions that need to be resolved to ensure there is a clear path to completion of the commitment that satisfies the teams larger objectives. Using the same example, our Purchasing rep did not feel comfortable elevating the issue with the supplier. But with encouragement from the Project Manager, he agreed to get his manager involved and see if she could get an answer from the supplier.
When the offender does realize he missed a commitment, and yet took no action to get help or warn others, the Project Manager or the User of the deliverable also needs to speak up about what’s missing. She might say…“what was missing for me was an early warning, so that other action might have been taken.” This allows the offender to “clean it up”. He needs to take responsibility and show that he is re-committed to the team’s agreement around early warnings. Note that it is still a conversation about the future, not the past.
Question 3: What new commitment will get us back on track? Someone, often the original owner of the commitment, needs to formalize his or her new commitment and new date, to the satisfaction of the immediate customers of that commitment. Again, using the same example, the Purchasing rep was not in a position to guarantee when the part would be in, but he made a new commitment to get his manager involved immediately and report back on the status by the end of the same day.
What happened, What’s missing, What’s next? We have found these 3 simple questions create accountability without any need for blame or finger pointing. This is critical for turning breakdowns into strengthened team commitment and trust. Of course, when operating from commitments, there will be many more instances where commitments were met, on time. Just holding these regular meetings to see if the team has accomplished what was committed is a form of accountability. But teams are not really operating from commitment and accountability unless they call out and resolve commitments missed as well as acknowledging the majority that were made.
Accountability conversations involve getting into the right state of mind, treating the other person with the respect all people deserve, and including all three elements of the conversation which gets easier with a little practice. Teams who can be counted on to do what they say they will – who aspire to operate with excellence and know they can count on each other – first learn how to operate from personal commitments, and then learn to get over their discomfort and use accountability conversations as a powerful asset.