Being Accountable

“Ninety-nine percent of all failures come from people who have a habit of making excuses” – George Washington Carver

Several years ago, while based in Texas, I was fortunate enough to spend time working with a pair of consultants who were helping to grow the skills of our management team. We affectionately nicknamed them “Click and Clack”, after Tom and Ray Magliozzi, who hosted the National Public Radio show Car Talk from 1977 to 2012. If either of those consultants is reading this, you know who you really are.

They taught us a lot, too much to relay here, but a couple of specifics made a big impression on me. One was un-reasonableness. They weren’t suggesting being unreasonable in line with the dictionary definition of the word (being unfair, expecting too much). The point was about not accepting “reasons” – excuses – for things not being done. Hence the quote from George Washington Carver that heads this post.

The second, which is strongly related, was accountability. I had first been introduced to the concept some years before when working in Norway, and over the years I have realised that the acceptance of accountability is one of the factors that is key to making an innovation culture work in your organisation.

The definition of accountability is sometimes unclear, and it can be confused with responsibility. A 2018 study by Stephen McGrath and Stephen Whitty of the University of Southern Queensland set out to properly define “accountability” and “responsibility”. After studying published definitions and usage of the two words, they concluded that accountability is defined as the “liability for ensuring a task is satisfactorily done”. It must be understood that this is different from responsibility, which they define as “an obligation to satisfactorily perform a task”. What’s the difference? Well, it’s subtle, but somebody who is responsible must use their best endeavours to do something – usually having been directed by another person. Responsibility can be collective, for example, a team can be responsible for reaching a goal. Somebody who is accountable must make sure that the goal is achieved – this is a level up from “using best endeavours” because “I tried my best” is not an excuse. Accountability cannot be collective; it must be concentrated in an individual. If a sports team loses there is collective responsibility within the team, but accountability for the defeat is concentrated on the coach, or manager – the person who made the final call on team selection and tactics. Essentially, a responsible person must use their best endeavours to do something whereas an accountable person makes promises, and those promises must be kept.

Successful organisations enforce accountability. Organisations that are known for being highly innovative also tend to be organisations that are ruthless when dealing with incompetence. Tolerance for failure and tolerance for incompetence are not the same thing. In a 2019 article for Harvard Business Review, Gary Pisano described how Apple, Amazon, Google and Pixar – all seen as innovative companies and desirable places to work – are ruthless when dealing with employees who do not make the grade.

It follows that you are unlikely to succeed unless you can clearly define responsibility and accountability and clarify roles – define who is responsible and who is accountable for each activity and make sure that everybody understands what is expected of them.

Fortunately, there is a tool that you can use to help. A RACI chart can be used to clarify roles. There are countless books and articles that will tell you how a RACI chart works, and I have included a couple in the references below. Fundamentally, though, the rules are simple:

  • R – is the Responsible person
  • A – is the Accountable person
  • C – is anyone who is Consulted. Such a person would provide information, advice, or guidance to a Responsible or Accountable person and as such would need to be consulted before an action takes place
  • I – is anyone who is Informed: Such a person does not need to be consulted but would still benefit from being informed of decisions, actions taken and their outcomes.

A simplified RACI chart, illustrating three of the steps involved in creating a requirements specification, is shown in the image above. Each task or activity is identified and has R, A, C or I assigned to a member or members of the team or organisation. I believe a RACI chart works better if a few simple rules and guidelines are applied:

  • Each task or activity must have one “A”, and only one – in other words there should be a unique one-to-one mapping between a task and a single individual who is accountable for its success
  • Each task must have at least one “R” – somebody who is responsible for doing the work. There can be more than one “R” for a given task, but it can get confusing if there are too many people assigned as responsible for a single activity
  • Any given individual should not have too many “R”s, or there is a risk of failure due to overloading that critical resource
  • Too few “C”s and “I”s indicate that there is probably not enough communication within the organisation
  • Too many “C”s and “I”s indicate that there is probably too much bureaucracy.

A properly designed RACI chart can be an invaluable tool for figuring out exactly who needs to do what and discussing it with them. If you flip it through ninety degrees, you’ll find that the same chart can also be useful for building role descriptions so that people understand exactly what is expected of them as individuals.

Make sure that responsibility and accountability are well-defined and well-understood in your organisation. It will pay dividends if you want to build an effective innovation culture.

Want to Know More?

The second volume of my book: Strategy and Innovation for a Changing World – Part 2: Sustainability Through Velocity is now available to pre-order in paperback. The topics introduced in this blog are expanded on and covered in much more detail in Chapter 6: “Getting it Done: Doing Things Right (and Quickly). I hope this short introduction has whetted your appetite!

References and Further Reading

Costello, T. (2012). RACI – Getting Projects “Unstuck”. IT Pro, published by the IEEE Computer Society, March–April.

McGrath, S., & Whitty, S. (2018). Accountability and Responsibility Defined. International Journal of Managing Projects in Business 11(3), 687–707

Pisano, G. (2019). The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures. Harvard Business Review, January–February

Tartell, R. (2017). Who Does What? Use RACI to Figure It Out! Training July–August, 12.


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