Accountability & Little Acts of Courage

Don’t wait for formal processes to manage accountability. Foster the little acts of courage that deliver accountability in real-time when required.

One of the reasons that traditional organisations struggle with the transition to digital ways of working is that they lack a consistent flow of accountability conversations. Accountability conversations are little acts of courage. Traditional organisations build elaborate structures and processes to ensure that accountability conversations occur. That’s why there is so much emphasis on reporting lines, performance management processes, peer review, measurement, business reviews, reporting and service level agreements. These activities are all proxies to force people in the organisation to have accountability conversations. Often these proxies become ends unto themselves with a bureaucratic efficiency that frustrates their purpose. We have seen meetings that were ostensibility to discuss accountability devolve into a series of formal set-pieces to ensure everyone avoids the difficult accountability conversations.

Forcing people to have an uncomfortable and risky conversation, usually results in compliance not commitment. People may duck the moments of little acts of courage, but still comply with the formal processes ensure that empty or confusing conversations are had. The consequence of a remote, formal, delayed and intermediated process of accountability is that these conversations are often unwanted by all involved. The resulting conversations are full of euphemism, deflection and opinion, feedback delivered by those who weren’t involved and the need to investigate further new issues raised. All this ensures that they are largely ineffective. Worse still the delayed and formal process has the outcome of taking small acts of feedback and blowing them up into major dramas and relationship breakers. Forcing people to have a conversation that involves little acts of courage just guarantees a conversation. It doesn’t guarantee courage, learning, or value.

Digital organisations focus on bringing forward the courageous conversation and getting into the conflict quickly. Every accountability conversation, especially those based on a difference of opinion, is a learning moment. The agile pace and real competitive demands of digital organisations mean that learning is valued, outcomes are the highest priority and conflicts must be surfaced early. These digital organisations have focused to varying degrees on different approaches to foster the psychological safety and directness required for the small courageous acts of accountability. Agile, Scrum, Lean, Holocracy, OKRs and other approaches are all paths to solve the absence of acts of accountability in traditional organisations.

We must remember that no process is an effective substitute for a purposeful, timely, respectful and brave conversation. Leaders in digital organisations must be on the alert for signals of misalignment and lack of timely conversations of accountability. Encouraging these conversations and fostering a culture of little acts of courage must be the first work of leadership in digital organisations. When digital organisations can deliver a consistent flow of these little conversations about accountability, issues of alignment, customer focus and performance disappear quickly and learning is accelerated.

Fixing the accountability issue for all organisations does not require a new process. It requires a relentless focus on fostering the kinds of conversations that resolve issues, improve performance, and allow people to learn and grow. The fix begins and ends with little acts of courage.

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