#NoAccountability

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.

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.

Addendum

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?

14 Comments

  1. Derek C. Ashmore on January 24, 2021 at 9:24 pm

    Thanks for writing the article. It’s a very valuable discussion.

    Accountability pervades organizations from the top down by design. Shareholders hold boards and CEOs accountable/responsible. By necessity, those CEOs hold their direct reports accountable, and on down the chain, it goes. Your example of trying accountability within marriage isn’t comparable as neither person is in a clear authority position over the other as exists in corporations.

    What’s the magic that allows a manager in IT, who is being held accountable/responsible from above, to decide *not* to use “accountability” for their direct reports in the manner you describe? Where is the logical place in an organization for that magic to occur? Who is the unlucky person that gets to deal with the impedance mismatch?

  2. Thomas Owens on January 25, 2021 at 12:17 am

    I find it interesting that “accountable” appears 8 times in the Scrum Guide and “responsible” appears 2 times. However, the Scrum Values don’t appear as often. “Commitment” appears 7 times, 3 in subheaders. “Open” or “openness” appears twice. “Respect” appears 4 times. “Courage” only appears twice. Only “focus”, appearing 11 times, appears more than “accountable”. Perhaps instead of talking about being accountable (or accountabilities) and being responsible (or responsibilities), more words should be used to explain how the people operating within Scrum can embody the values as they hold the events or maintain the artifacts. Alternatively, perhaps “accountability” and “responsibility” should be values.

    • Allen Holub on January 26, 2021 at 12:56 am

      Well, I’m thinking about the legion of DarkAgile shops, but certainly DarkScrum shops fit in that category 🙂

  3. Ray on January 26, 2021 at 12:46 am

    “Sprint” appears 100 times. “Definition of Done” appears 16 times. “is accountable for” appears 4 times, but “The Scrum Master is accountable for” appears only twice.

    • Allen Holub on January 30, 2021 at 8:10 pm

      The word “accountable” appears 8 times by my count, and is applied to literally every Scrum role, not just the SM.

  4. Dennis Wittrock on February 1, 2021 at 2:39 pm

    From a hashtag#Holacracy Coach perspective I can only say that context of usage is crucial. Of course you can live without the signifier “accountability” or any equivalent term, if your culture is that great and progressive that you never disappoint each other’s legitimate expectations. To me, accountability is about what I can legitimately expect from another role and the person which freely chose to take on and fill that role. It speeds up coordination. I don’t have to beg or be extra-friendly to that person. It’s just their role to do a certain activity and I can rely on that without having to leverage the personal dimension. You don’t ask your waiter in a restaurant for a personal “favor” if you ask for a menu. You rely on established expectations, accountabilities of his role, to serve you. Asking for the menu is not rude, it is 100% legit. Roles and accountabilities remove the frictions and make expectations explicit. This says nothing about whether the waiter totally loves his job, or excels at it, or has customer-satisfaction as his only purpose in life. All these would be “great culture”, but nothing to be captured in an accountability in Holacracy. Instead you define the bare minimum you want to be able to expect reasonably.This is also not meant to “shame” that person. It is saying: “Hey, you took on this role and this accountability. Please give me an update on my project request.” It is a reasonable question to ask. And if the expectation is way off, if the accountability on that role is over the top or unrealistic, anyone can propose to have it changed or removed via the Governance process in Holacracy. Nobody imposes power over anyone else. The process rules supreme. If you get rid of the terms “accountability” or “responsibility” you may feel better, but only if you have a high-performing team who doesn’t need these crutches in the first place. But if there is the slightest mismatch in expectations it pays to have a crystal clear process to generate the needed clarity collectively. So, to summarize: I don’t buy the notion of getting rid of uncomfortable terms. It merely hides the real pain of mismatched expectations. That is very dangerous.

    • Eugene on May 6, 2021 at 12:14 pm

      I think both examples of relationship are wrong here – job is not a marriage and customer is not a teammate.
      The conversation is about working with your teammates.
      If a boss treats his team as if he’s the customer your organization is broken.

      • Allen Holub on May 6, 2021 at 7:10 pm

        Dennis, I think you’re entirely missing my point, which was to define what the words “accountable” and “responsible” mean. Yes, a job is not a marriage, but the definition of the word accountable does not change with context. It means what it means. It’s that meaning (which implies an unhealthy power dynamic) that makes the word completely unacceptable at home, and I think that the same power dynamic makes the word unacceptable at work.

  5. Bruce Eckel on February 1, 2021 at 6:22 pm

    I have had this same problem when trying to introduce radically different ways of thinking. If someone is already seeking down that path, your idea is stimulating and may even make intuitive sense. But if (in this case) someone has spent their life learning the patriarchy and believing in it, new ideas do not serve their interest, and these ideas just seem ridiculous, wrong-headed, and existentially frightening. Someone who doesn’t see the water (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eC7xzavzEKY) cannot make any sense of what you are trying to point out.

  6. Carl Phillips on February 3, 2021 at 9:09 am

    Hi, I’d like you to frame “Diffusion of Responsibility” (the cognitive bias) in this to round it out. For me all of this is about trade-offs.

    In my household, sometimes the dishes don’t get done because each of us expects the other to have done them. Communicating expectations “Darling, I have to work late tonight so please could you do the dishes?” to me is still asking someone to be responsible for doing the dishes.

    Likewise, if in the morning they aren’t done – if that’s a problem – I wouldn’t sweat the why personally, assuming in the above example that my spouse had agreed to be responsible.

    I think practically, one of the patterns of highly successful teams is a clear understanding of responsibilities – individual and shared. I think these teams hold themselves accountable, rather than being held accountable by some external other. This manifests in a desire to constantly do better.

  7. Maurizio on February 5, 2021 at 1:48 pm

    I don’t agree that “A culture of accountability is actively destructive”, and I find the marriage example a little misplaced: no one in his right mind would address a spouse in such a way, but no one would be happy either being with someone who does not hold him/herself responsible and accountable for his/her actions in a marriage… you trust someone because he/she says what he/she does, and does what he/she says. That’s ethical accountability, and looks like a pretty good thing to me.
    Speaking of team performances and dynamics, there’s substantial evidence pointing to the fact that performances are a function of multiple interrelated factors, accountability being one of them, and studies show that psychological safety and accountability are good predictor of high performance, in environments where there’s high levels of accountability AND high levels of psychological safety. I believe what you describe is closer to a context of high accountability and low psychological safety, and I can see how destructive this can be, but that’s not a problem intrinsic with the concept of accountability.

    • Allen Holub on February 6, 2021 at 10:03 pm

      Re: “no one in his right mind would address a spouse in such a way.” Exactly. That’s because accountability is based on a power imbalance. A marriage should not have that sort of power dynamic, thus the language in that context seems offensive. That’s exactly my point. Power and asymmetry are implicit in the word, and it’s no better in a work context than it is in a relationship context. Management that focuses on force and power is ineffective at best, abusive at worst (just as holding your partner/spouse accountable is abusive language, because that’s what the word means). Psychological safety is indeed a good indicator, as are the RAMP principles described by Dan Pink. Accountability is in a different category entirely. You can not lump them together.

  8. Rod on May 12, 2021 at 2:31 pm

    This. Is. Awesome.

    All of my intuition on teamwork and performance summarized in 1 single page. You sir, are brilliant.

    Kind regards

  9. Chris Laforet on May 23, 2021 at 3:20 pm

    I came across your post and it is so on point. I appreciated your statement concerning love and respect which outstrip the concepts of accountability and responsibility by far. These are encompassing organic terms compared to legalistic ones which can only be used to bludgeon and bruise. Thanks for the reminder of what lies at the core of a solid high-functioning team.

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