On Accountability in Networks

Following on from my recent posts on accountability in networks, I was asked recently whether a network could be accountable for an action or an outcome over an individual. This is an important question as we move into new ways of working. Anxiety over changes from the perceived effectiveness of alternatives to hierarchical models of accountability is a major barrier to management adoption. 

Answering a question about accountability usually involves a number of layers because management tends to be vague when it uses the term accountability. The linearity of hierarchy makes accountability an easy concept to use loosely.  Hierarchy often conflates accountability to make decisions, accountability for the outcome and responsibility to do the work

Let’s pull apart each of these meanings of accountability. 

Accountability vs Responsibility

First, we need to separate responsibility to do the work from accountability to deliver an outcome. Of course, you can have single accountability with networked responsibility. We do that every day. Almost every work scenario has one person to hold to account.

However you will need the holder of the accountability to understand the network leadership required to ensure the outcome from the network. This is why CEOs should not fear working like a network. It is how they actually work.  Most CEOs know their orders go through so many layers that influence and authority in the organisational network matters more than the power inherent in their order.

Accountability in a Group

If you wish for network accountability, remember every network has sub-networks that will hold & manage that accountability on behalf of the group and manage the responsibility of other sub-networks to do all or part of the work. An every day example is a board of a volunteer, movement or not for profit organisation. Often the accountability can be diffused in a formal or informal executive committee of managers, the chair and other key influencers.  The responsibilities for work are widely spread in free agent volunteers. This kind of accountability works but requires strong leadership in the group and the wider network.

Remember human networks have lots of accountability mechanisms like gossip, trust, reputation, authority, shunning and ultimately exclusion to manage situations where there may not be a hiearchical power to enforce accountabilities. Many of these techniques work without resort to force even against countervailing power. There’s a good reason volunteer organisations have lots of ructions.

Accountability to Decide

If you focus specifically on accountability as defining who holds the decision making rights, then network accountability needs a decision making system. Humans have lots of network decision making systems from consensus to democracy to more authority based models.

Networks work

Networks are how humans get stuff done. We have solved these issues in our history. Jon Husband’s definition of wirearchy captures this capability of networks neatly:

“a dynamic two-way flow of  power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology”.

We need to work differently and we need to use different approaches to leadership, trust and authority to make network accountabilities work. That doesn’t make it less effective. Managers just need to learn new skills to leverage the exponential potential of human networks.

Leveraging Accountability in Networks

In networks we are less able to leverage power to enforce accountability. Leveraging accountability requires a different focus as we are challenged to consider how we connect to personal purpose, relationships and reputation. Considering these approaches benefit leaders in each domain.

Accountability in Hierarchy is Done to You

In traditional hierarchical management, accountability is the responsibility of those in power. Accountabilities are enforced leveraging the power of leaders to reward, punish and exclude.

As a result accountability can be an imposed experience.  Decisions made remotely have impacts on status, rewards and other benefits. Accountability is a transaction of consequences that may not endure. An individual depends on good leaders to fully understand the process by which they are held to account and the rationale of the consequences.

Accountability in Networks is Personal

Confronted by an absence to enforce consequences with power many traditional leaders assume there is no accountability in networks. Individuals collaborating as peers are coming and going under their own authority. How could anyone hold them to account for their actions or decisions. We are too familiar from discussion of trolls and lurking with the idea that in a network domain there is little accountability.

Accountability in networks has not gone but it must be founded in personal decisions, relationships and reputation. Trust is the fundamental commodity of collaboration in networks and trust is a human process with swift and effective accountability.

For an individual to have any accountability in a network, they must have made a personal decision to engage.  The best of these decisions are founded in and reinforce personal purpose. Individuals rarely walk away from commitments aligned to their personal purpose. One of the reasons, efforts to hold lurkers to account fail is that the individual has usually made no explicit commitment to do anything. 

Communicating the decision to engage to others in a relationship is the the foundation for accountability in that relationship. Once the personal decision is shared it creates expectations in another.  How an individual performs against those expectations has implications for their ongoing relationship, their reputation in the community and the trust that others have in them.  Trolls explicitly avoid this relationship. They leverage anonymity to escape personal consequences and explicitly reject the norms of the communities that they attack. Trolling is a transaction in a community built on relationships. The major enterprise social networks rely on verified identities of employees to draw into the organisations community these relationships and their consequences.

Individuals who fail this relationship based approach to accountability will feel consequences. They may not be excluded or punished but they will find their influence decline as people decline to engage with them. Individuals will lose their authority to act. Having proved themselves untrustworthy the network routes around them like a blockage. The consequences of this for an individual can be harsh, devastating and enduring. Ostracism is a punishment for failing accountability in many ancient communities for this reason.

Leverage Accountability in a Relationship

To leverage accountability in networks, even those woven through our hierarchies, leaders need to follow some key practices:

  • Get personal: The best accountabilities are personal so we need to move from imposing accountability on groups to a focus on the individual and the individual’s actions and decisions.
  • Stand for a purpose: Purpose underpins deep accountability. If you stand for a purpose, you have a better chance of drawing the commitment of others who share that purpose and also of those people holding themselves to account.
  • Discover & share common truths: Shared context strengthens accountability. Focus on discovering and sharing common truths. You will be held to account for spin
  • Ask for explicit public commitments: Public commitments become part of relationships. Be explicit. Encourage people to share theirs and ask others in the community to hold them to account 
  • Lead adaptively: Creating tension that enables individuals and the community to reflect on performance and identify opportunities to improve is a key skill. The network will not always listen to leader’s answers but it is more likely to engage with a great question.
  • Enable in a Responsive Organisation: The focus of a Responsive Organisation on autonomy, transparency and experimentation increases the focus on personal commitment and relationships. A Responsive Organisation reduces the excuses around process and policy and seeks to extend the accountability of relationships to customers and community external to the organisation.

Accountability in hierarchies is based on transactions of power. In networks it demands a much more personal and relationship based approach.

This post is the last in a five part series on managing accountability in the network era. The other posts deal with:

Authenticity and Accountability in Networks

Authenticity is the foundation of accountability in networks. If we engage with pretence nothing is sure. By challenging ourselves and others to be authentic we have something to hold ourselves to account against when we interact in networks.

Accountability demands Authenticity

I recently saw this quote from Marc Mathieu, a senior marketer at Unilever, about marketing and it highlighted for me how much of our communication is changing in a world where we are surrounded by connected networks:

Marketing used to be about creating a myth and telling it. Now it’s about funding a truth and sharing it. – Marc Mathieu

Whether you are a leader, a marketer or an individual, the challenge is to share your authentic story and engage others. The authenticity and the humanity is what engages because it is true. We doubt the perfect and the mythical.

Networks have the capacity to unravel created myths and surface the contrary reality. The social movements that campaign against many organisations are seeking to make more widely known the holes in their myths. This is a process of the community through its networks holding the organisations to account for their lack of authenticity.  The movement will succeed or fail to the extent it can more authentically engage people.

Communication demands Authenticity

Communication and engagement built on pretence has foundations of sand. The same applies if we reiterate the opinions of others without any reflection as to their authenticity. If we don’t care to understand the facts and are happy to settle for spin or opinion, then we are comfortable with make believe and deceit is not far away.

No manager would seriously argue to run an organisation on this basis. Yet many engage in corporate speak, spin and massaging the facts in an effort to influence, market and improve their position. While this may gain short term influence, in the medium term it will have a devastating impact on authority when the wider network unravels the myth.  When leadership and influence in a network relies on your authority, it is wiser to build on surer foundations.

Authenticity is the heart of accountability.

Accountability is best when it is personal and when it is founded in an agreed context.  A connection to an authentic personal position brings accountability back to the individual in the network. There is no arguing later that you were mislead or that the facts have changed if the decision is authentically yours.

You will be held to account for what you say in the network era.  It is far better to make those views reflect the authentic you.  

This post is the third in a five part series on managing accountability in the network era. The other posts deal with:

Accountability and Email

The rise of digital networks is changing accountability in organisations. Hierarchy’s power to dictate is being eroded in favour of the voice and influence of the network.

Push The Story Better?

A common & failing response to the new internal and external accountability is for senior management to decide that we need a better job of getting their story out. This may take the form of a new marketing campaign, PR, letters to shareholders or even all staff emails.

Management choose these means of communication because there is little realistic prospect of a response. Only a tiny percentage of the audience traditionally replies to ads or PR messages. Not many more notice them. However by issuing one-way communications management has satisfied the challenge that something should be done.

While these approaches get a message out, they do not change the dynamic in an engaged network seeking authority and holding each other to account. An ‘official communication’, even that all too rare transparent and authentic communication, will be only one voice in a highly engaged conversation. That official message will have less influence without the support of champions to hold a conversation around its content, to answer queries and discuss objections.

Email is One-way

We see this experience play out in email. The surest way to avoid a conversation is email. No wonder email is so popular in management.

Email initially looks like a two-way communication choice but in practice emails down the hierarchy, whether to an individual or to all staff, are one-way media. Emails down the hierarchy are an exercise in pulling rank.

Only a brave employee will respond to the display of rank with an exercise in speaking back to power. If there is a response, it will be small scale and private. Nothing that can’t be managed.

An all staff email doesn’t start a conversation. It is usually an effort to end a conversation that is inconvenient. The effort to end the conversation is one reason these days that all staff email will inevitably leak. Frustrated by the message, employees respond externally.

Email appeals to management because it is a great way to push message or task and rely on the privacy and power gap to silence any objection.

Email is an Evasion of Accountability

Email is also commonly used as a way to avoid difficult conversations. Emails are sent to avoid the relationships and engagement that creates accountability or holds people accountable.

‘I sent you an email’ is not an answer. It is an evasion. Any glance at the email servers of a major corporate will see too many emails sent to shift work, responsibility or information to others with the minimum amount of engagement.  Seeking clean industrial conversations, email offer a clean toneless way to avoid emotional human conversations & human relationships. In many cases all email does is move to do lists around the organisation.

Hierarchies seem to think that people can be held accountable by email. An email might allocate a responsibility but it is a slippery way to hold people to account for their actions or decisions. Holding someone to account for decisions requires a conversation built on trust, shared purpose and understanding. Email rarely delivers that much engagement and context.

There is no accountability without clarity of responsibility and consequence. Email does not assure clarity of responsibility. Worse, there is less consequence in an email conversation than a two-way and open conversation. Even the exertion of the power of rank in email is less effective than in a context where the social value of rank matters to the recipient and audience.

The best accountability is personal. Personal accountability arises from engagement in conversations to create shared purpose, trust and enduring relationships.

Email is Toneless 

One reason so much corporate communication and the messages of senior executives are tone deaf is that they are not used to being questioned or listening for a reaction. Tone improves with shared context and accountability. That clanging sound is a failure to understand the context and a failure to acknowledge personal accountability to others in pursuit of one’s own message. Think through how your message will be received and what queries others may have and your tone will be better. You have made yourself a little more accountable to the audience

That lack of tone can be devastating when a network holds the individual or an organisation to account for their emails.  What many organisations miss in creating these bureaucratic emails shifting accountability and avoiding responsibility is that they are also creating the records that will be used later to judge their decisions. Whether those emails become public through a leak or in discovery in court proceedings, the future accountability for decisions in the network will be through a review of the emails, often long out of the context in which they were sent. As a result, the broader networks are often holding people accountable for a poor choice communicated by email.

To improve accountability step out of your email, leave behind the hierarchy and engage others in an authentic two way conversation in the network. There will be benefits in your leadership approach, the relationships created and the performance of the organisation.

This post is the third in a five part series on managing accountability in the network era. The other posts deal with:

Accountability, Rank and Authority

We assume people who hold rank in a hierarchy are accountable. Rank is rarely the measure of accountability. Accountability in networks is more likely to be found with social constructed authority.

Accountability in hierarchy can be attenuated by the distance of people in positions of power from customers, employees or others stakeholders. Our expectation that the buck stops with those with highest rank increasingly disappoints us. Without trust, those in hierarchical positions can continue to operate and exercise power.

Authority is earned and lost in networks

However, authority is earned in networks. Authority is not given or imposed.  The status of authority as a social construct means accountability to the network is built in.  

Importantly, in a network authority will often attach to the most authoritative figure who is a part of the conversation, whether they seek it or not.  Nilofer Merchant described this phenomenon well recently highlighting that leaders who step up to engage in social conversations will be expected to act. The reach of this expectation will run to their supposed authority, well beyond their power or their rank. In a societal conversation, leaders may be expected to act on their own power and influence their industry or society. By chosing to bring their rank to the conversation, they start with an expectation and an authority. The challenge is what they do next.

An authority who fails to exercise their status will lose it. Any authority that becomes unreliable, malicious or inauthentic will quickly lose their status. Losing the authority that is the underpinning of influence and action, is the swift form of accountability found in network relationships that depend on trust.

As we lose our trust in hierarchies, we will go looking for trusted authorities in networks. Should they fail us, we will change them rapidly.

This post is the second in a five part series on managing accountability in the network era. The posts deal with:

Responsible or Accountable

In a hierarchy, power moves down from their top. The focus of power is the allocation of responsibility to act to individuals and the management of their performance. Holding people accountable is a conversation driven by top down over those responsible. 

Hierarchies retain decision making continues at the top, so in theory that should be where the buck stops. However, the nature of the power relationship internally creates weak accountability for higher level decisions. Traditionally the only accountability for these decisions is through signals from shareholders or some times customers. 

The signals from the stock market and shareholders on management decisions are often weak. We accept high turnover in shareholders, customers and employees and explain away discontent.  Dealing with exit of frustrated shareholders, employees and customers is often as easy as adopting a growth orientation. Management need not consider the voices of those leaving as a source of accountability or a source of performance improvement. 

In an increasingly complex network world, this approach to accountability is no longer sustainable. While you retain a hierarchy for the allocation of responsibility, internally and externally your organisation needs to leverage networks to manage the complex relationships and challenges it faces. Suddenly we need to consider the shifting flow of authority and power in a wirearchy.

Traditional decision making (& the associated accountability) is also backward looking.  We examine history to determine what to do and what should have been done. As Harold Jarche points out we can’t look back to the past to predict the next decision or even who to hold responsible for action. Increasingly the question around accountability is ‘how will this decision be viewed at some point in the future by our stakeholders?’

New Network Accountability

With the increasingly networked world comes new sources of accountability. Employees, customers, shareholders and the community now have voice and the ability to organise.  They can leverage their relationships with the organisation and others to express their concerns. Organisations must increasingly enable all their employees to respond to these situations when and where they arise. That demands a more responsive organisation. 

These new internal and external accountabilities can’t be ignored or managed away without jeopardising business relationships. A decision not to participate in social interactions or the network won’t stop the conversation. It simply means your voice goes unheard In the conversation and might harm your business. Those who better respond to the needs and concerns of your employees, customers and community in the network will see their influence grow as those who ignore the accountability to the network will see influence fade.

The opportunity for responsive organisations is to embrace the new accountabilities in the pursuit of more effective performance.  With these accountabilities comes:

  • new information on the performance of your products, services, opportunities with your customers and your impact in the community
  • new relationships with influencers in the networks within and around your organisation
  • opportunities to leverage the talent and potential of people internally and externally who may not be within the consideration of the current hierarchy.

You may not change your strategy, your products and services or your organisation as a result of this additional network insight.  However, if you will have done much to better understand the true performance opportunities in your business and to remove risks that the weak accountability and weak information flows of a hierarchical approach may miss.

We encourage accountability in business as a driver of performance and an opportunity to improve.  Shift your accountability from the hierarchy to the network. You will discover new opportunities for your organisation.

This post is the first in a five part series on managing accountability in the network era. The posts deal with:

Networks have Feelings Too!

In enthusiasm for our ability to connect people in networks and to see the potential of new ways of working, we can lose sight of an important element. Networks are composed of human beings.  The rules of human relationships still apply and there is no magical technology that allows us to escape these fundamental rules.

Networks need to Form, Storm & Norm to Perform too

The process of forming a group dynamic in a networked community follows that of a team. Because a network is a mix of strong and weak ties the process of reaching community norms may well be a difficult and extended one.  

In a network, each individual forms a sense of the community, its purpose and the practices that prevail. At times for some individuals or groups in the community this sense of meaning can be quite out of alignment with the broader consensus.  However, in some cases the interactions in the community do not surface the differences or do not make that misalignment obvious to those in the community.

If each participant proceeds on and does not meet a conflict with their sense of meaning, then they will not discover the need to revisit their view. Often this failure to develop common meaning and norms will create major challenges for the network later when conflicts arise. People who feel that their sense of the norms ‘are obvious’ and have been acting on expectations of the same from others may experience a deep breach in trust at this moment. 

A key role of social leaders is to foster the meaning in a network and alignment of norms and value creation.  Leading these conversations early in a network’s life will help accelerate the community development and avoid later issues.

Remember weak ties means limits

One danger of the weak ties found in large networks is weak accountability. Without a strong connection to you, I can easily engage in the avoidance of conflict and the hard work of leadership. Rather than deal with a difficult situation it is human nature to see if we can’t ignore it or pretend that it is someone else’s responsibility to respond. See a conversation in a network that disturbs you and you can let it go or worse filter it out, if there is no accountability to engage.

Equally weak ties can mean that there is little cost to me for the snide remark, the cutting comment or even troll activity. Personal accountability for our actions through strong ties to others cuts down on this behaviour. I may not have accountability to the individual but I have a reputation to maintain with others and so I moderate my behaviour.

Leaders need to foster an environment of accountability in networks. Encouraging all participants to engage, to challenge and to clarify understanding helps accelerate the value in the network.

Build a network up from a single conversation

In this wonderful video on innovation by Sylvain Carle from Creative Mornings Montreal, there is a description of Unix and the need to build up complex systems from smaller systems that work beforehand. Networks are complex systems composed of smaller connected systems. 

The smallest systems of a network is two people in conversation. The conversations in your networks should work as great stand alone conversations.  If those conversations don’t work the way they work in the rest of your life, then something is wrong.

This week I was asked ‘why can’t we just let the network do its job to create a community virally?’ Networks don’t create a community. They only connect people. Conversations create communities. Conversations help people understand the purpose of the network and the personal and collective value that will be created. Those conversations are the work of leaders. Engaging movements of people in sharing and spreading ideas is the work of leaders through stories and conversations, not the networks themselves.

Start your leadership work by focusing on creating effective, valuable and engaging conversations.  Build your network back from there.