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Jim Benson


Responsibility Beats Accountability

Why initiative is better than a blame trail

Published: Monday, May 6, 2019 - 12:02

We need to hold people accountable. I invite you to just look at that sentence for a minute. I hear it in every organization we work with. Every. Single. Time.

Look at the sentence. Now, consider for a moment, why you would say it. Go on.

Accountability models rarely do root cause analysis.

What is accountability

We have a few excuses that we confuse with reasons for “holding people accountable.”
1. We want to make sure work gets done.
2. We want to make sure the people assigned to their work do their assigned tasks.
3. We want to know whom to go to when something goes wrong.

All three of these “reasons” are actually responses to failures in your process. They are emotional, simplistic reactions. You and your team and your organization simply have a crummy system that requires individual wringable necks to be identified in advance for inevitable preordained failure.

More often than not, accountability makes individuals individually accountable for a team failure. Information flow is poor, real-time understanding of work is nonexistent, people are overloaded, stuff falls through the cracks, and you blame them for that stuff.

You assign accountability. It is a push model.

Accountability is blame.

Accountability is an anti-pattern. It is overhead. It is an indication that your system is poorly designed.

What is responsibility

On the other hand, we have responsibility. It is what we all want. But we settle for accountability because we’re too busy “working” to build a responsible shared process. Or we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that the process is someone else’s job.

Responsibility is when people not only understand the tasks they have taken on but also understand what their colleagues are doing and how they can help. Responsibility is when all members of your team know what needs to be done, and they do it.

In a responsibility model, when something goes wrong people identify the problem, and they fix it. More often than not, problems are fixable (e.g., breakdowns in communication, more effective ways of working, dealing with a short-term bottleneck). Problems are spotted early and solved rather than hidden because of fear of accountability. Work is done without fear of individual reprisal, and people take responsibility for stuff.

People accept responsibility. It is a pull model.

Responsibility is professionalism.

Responsibility is healthy. It reduces overhead. It is a sign your processes and systems are well designed.

Your assignment this week

Examine and discuss with others where your system favors blame over professionalism:
• Where do you stop your professionals from doing their job?
• Where have you built fear or doubt into the system?
• How overloaded are people?
• What was the last blamable action that could have been avoided?
• How much time did you spend on that avoidable work?


About The Author

Jim Benson’s picture

Jim Benson

A pioneer in applying lean and kanban to knowledge work, and an internationally recognized speaker and writer, Jim Benson is CEO of the collaborative management consultancy Modus Cooperandi. He is a fellow in the Lean Systems Society and recipient of the Brickell Key Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking, 2012. He is the creator of Personal Kanban and co-author of Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2011) winner of the Shingo Research and Publication Award, 2013. His other books include Why Plans Fail (Modus Cooperandi, 2011) and Beyond Agile (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2013).