Accountability, Responsibility, Ownership, & More

Great organisations align responsibilities, accountabilities and outcomes. Your issues with accountability might be about lack of clarity of responsibility and lack of alignment to outcomes instead.

Every time I see a RACI matrix, that artefact of complicated organisations, i have to remind myself the difference between Responsibility (who does the work) and Accountability (who is on the hook and makes the decisions) in those tables. One reason that these concepts sit poorly with me is that they don’t seem to make sense. Why don’t the people doing the work get to make the decisions? Hang on we usually hold the people doing the work to account.

Great work occurs when responsibility and accountability are aligned and when the teams doing the work take ownership of not just the work but the outcomes. Great work occurs when people care.

For years, I resisted ownership as a concept at work because I had seen the concept abused far too often. Ownership of customers does not exist. Ownership of resources should not be used to block others. Ownership of projects must not used to resist collaboration and stakeholder inputs to the detriment of the work. However, a sense of deep commitment and ownership of the outcomes of work, lightly held to allow for changes, is a much more important part of success.

Organisations love accountability. Usually, in the manner of pushing accountability down the hierarchy. They hold those responsible for the work accountable while letting those accountable escape review. Power is like that. Uniting accountability and responsibility lays the foundation for genuine mutual accountability, not as parent-child in a hierarchy of power but as peers.

When organisations describe their accountability problem, it usually traces back to a few causes. Many can’t move passed an unwillingness to have hard conversations, an all too common problem. Much more commonly what is described as an accountability is a lack of clarity and alignment between accountability and responsibility and a genuine alignment to outcomes.

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