Accountability? Humbug!

Paul Oldfield |


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One thing I commonly hear in my line of business is of a Manager asking a team or an individual for an estimate of how long it will take to complete a piece of work, then “holding him accountable” to meet that estimate. My line of business work is Development – characterised by the degree of “Unknown Unknowns”.

If there is a Rule 1 about accountability, it is that it is Management Malpractice to hold employees accountable for things that aren’t within their control.

One might say that the people in development work have opportunities to “work harder or smarter” but this can only cover a certain amount of the unknown that is inherent in the work. What is worse, by demanding that people are accountable they will be forced into bad behaviour, habitually overestimating to cover for the cases that occasionally need that extra time. The Manager thinks he has rid himself of the uncertainty by making it someone else’s problem, but in reality the problem is there in another form. And what’s going to happen if you take strict measures over a failure to meet estimates? There’s a clear case of malpractice here!

People want accountability for different reasons, at the better end it is so they can understand what happened and learn how things went wrong when they went wrong.

At the worse end it is so they can punish people more or less when they choose.

These two aims are antagonistic to each other – while punishment is an option what you hear is sure to be biased and incomplete.

So, be sure that when you are holding people to account for anything, what they will be held to account for is something that is entirely within their control. You might also ask for an account of things that aren’t entirely within their control, but in this case you need to be clear that punishment or recriminations of any kind are not an option being considered.

There was an interesting experiment preformed a good few years ago, you can find many write-ups of “Deming’s Bead Experiment”. Each author seems to take a different slant on the results, but all are of the opinion that it demonstrated people being held to account for things that weren’t in their control, of the folly of expecting performance to be predictable based on past history when in reality it was based on events outwith the control of the person being measured.

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