The notion of accountability—and its lesser cousin, responsibility—often pop up in the context of business, as if both of those ideas are good things. A culture of accountability, we’re told, is essential to running a business. The word “accountable” appears all over the 2020 Scrum Guide.
I don’t buy any of it. A culture of accountability is actively destructive, and responsibility isn’t exactly positive, either. You can’t have “accountability” without people being held accountable and people holding others accountable. It’s a system of suspicion and punishment. Trust and respect works better.
First, some definitions (from the Oxford English Dictionary):
accountable /əˈkaʊn(t)əbəl/ 1. Chiefly of persons (in later use also organizations, etc.): liable to be called to account or to answer for responsibilities and conduct; required or expected to justify one’s actions, decisions, etc.; answerable, responsible.
responsible /riˈspɑnsəb(ə)l/ 1.a. Capable of fulfilling an obligation or duty
To me, at least, those definitions are all about force and control. They assume that people are lazy and unmotivated and have to be pressured into doing their work well. It’s all about judgement, not support. You’ll make promises, damnit, and you’ll answer to me if you don’t come through! Of course, the person who holds you accountable is usually the person who makes the rules and defines your success. “You are accountable to meet this deadline that I made up” or “you are accountable for succeding at this thing that I told you to do, using the methods that I told you to follow.” Rarely does someone agree to the criteria for which they’re held accountable.
Things get even worse when we’re talking about “indiviual accountability.” The notion elevates the individual over the team. To me, effective teams are collaborative, and that applies recursively. The notion of individual accountability spits in the face of collaborative teamwork.
Accountability is all about external force. You are accountable to your boss, who will punish you if you don’t succeed. You are accountable to your team, which will somehow punish you if you “screw up.” Responsibility is not much better. It’s implies self shaming: You are responsible for X. You took on that responsibility voluntarily! You should be ashamed that you didn’t do it!
Both terms imply a culture of violence, to borrow a notion from Bob Marshall. Violence is not conducive to agility.
Many Agile coaches want to turn these terms into something kinder and gentler. For example, they’ll quote definition 3a in the OED as if it’s primary:
Able to be accounted for or explained; explicable.
They tell me that “accountable” means only that you should be able to provide explanations.
I don’t buy that either.
(I should say that this pushback often comes from friends who live outside the US. Maybe they have a more functional culture than I’ve witnessed, so the word seems harmless to them. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and envy the fact that they are in a position to think I’m crazy.)
The urge for kinder and gentler definitions comes, I think, from working in organizations that bandy the words around as if the ideas are, not just normal and desirable, but essential to the functioning of the business. You get punished for not playing along. So, let’s keep using the word, but pretend that it means something else. This is an accountability culture, after all. Redefining the word does not change the underlying culture, however.
If you’re prone to argue this point, I propose an experiment. This evening, tell your spouse or partner “I’ll hold you accountable for doing the dishes tonight” and see how that goes over. That’s what the word really means (which is why it’s so unacceptable). Heads will roll. I’m more powerful than you are. Simply explaining why the dishes aren’t done will not fly. “Quit making excuses.” When people say that a politician should be accountable for their actions, they don’t mean that all will be forgiven if the miscreant can just explain the graft and corruption.
There’s an asymmetrical power dynamic at work. Punishment is always implied. Someone who claims that accountability goes both ways is usually the one who holds the levers of power. This is all about finding a wringable neck.
“You’re responsible for the dishes” is no better, though it’s different. Responsibility is about blame. You have an obligation to do X! You’re a bad person if you don’t. A culture of blame is no better than a culture of punishment. Responsibility, since it’s taken on internally (often under pressure), is insidious because the blame easily turns into shame and self doubt. Not good.
So, what’s the alternative?
A healthy relationship—at home and at work—is about collaboration and sharing, not power. The words “accountable” and “responsible” simply won’t come up in the context of dishes (or anything else) in a healthy relationship. The drivers are love and respect, not obligation.
At work, would you rather do a good job because you were responsible for something and held accountable when you fail, or because the work was gratifying and made you feel good? A world of difference. External pressure (accountability) and internal pressure (responsibility) are simply not needed in a healthy culture. As in a relationship, the word “accountable” is rarely, if ever, heard in high functioning organizations.
If you need a how-to, take a look at Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory, as summarized by Dan Pink in Drive: Relatedness, Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose. Create a culture where you feel connected to the people around you and the customers you serve, where you are trusted to do the work in the best way you know, where you’re encouraged to learn and get better (including learning from “mistakes”), and where you’re creating things that make people’s lives better. Great teams are all about connection and help and encouragement, and the joy and satisfaction that comes from a job well done. Suddenly, the concepts of accountability and responsibility have no place. Great work happens without them.
I want to finish up with this video. Watch it twice. The first time, just watch how awesome Nia Dennis is, but the second time through, pay attention to how her team, positioned around the edges of the mat, is helping and encouraging. This is what effective teams look like. It’s all about support and connection and excellence. A team working in an accountability culture will not look like this. What sort of team would you rather work on?