What is accountability for performance?
Accountability is a concept in ethics; it provides a framework for thinking about ethical matters associated with responsibility and commitment. In the corporate world, accountability occurs when a manager takes responsibility for organisational goals. The term originates in the money lending industry of ancient Greece and stems from the word ‘reckon’. The first written record of the concept comes from the Code of Hammurabi in Babylon, ‘If a man uses violence on another man’s wife to sleep with her, the man shall be killed, but the wife shall be blameless’.
Strong accountabilities are usually present in high-performing organisations. When managers feel accountable for results, they are more likely to deliver results. There is a presumption of a causal relationship; building strong accountabilities enables better performance.
Nevertheless, accountabilities are weak in many organisations, particularly in the public sector. One is led to ask therefore, why this desirable quality is in such short supply? Part of the answer is that most organisations find it difficult to embed the four critical pre-requisites of real accountability. In its work with public and private sector organisations, 2GC has observed that accountability cannot exist without: clarity of goals, the ability to deliver, measurement and acceptance of responsibility. This FAQ answer explores these prerequisites as well as ways in which accountability can be developed and strengthened.
Pre-requisites for accountability
Clarity of Goals
Managers must know what they are expected to deliver before they can become responsible for delivery. This requires that goals be clearly specified, so that the accountable manager and the person holding him/her responsible have a shared and agreed understanding of what these are. In the achievement of goals it is difficult to escape the need for measures (metrics, KPIs) of performance, and clear specification of targets of ‘how much’ performance is required. However, before we even begin to address KPIs and target setting, we need to clearly describe in plain language what it is we are trying to achieve, and by when.
Ability to Deliver
Accountability for goal achievement can only be assumed by a manager if they have the ability to deliver. Generally, ability relates to having the resources required to deliver against accountabilities and these include money, time, skills and physical capacity. A less tangible but equally important category of resource is ‘authority’. Authority refers to the power and span of control to ‘make things happen’, both formally and informally.
A manager’s performance in goal achievement must be subject to monitoring, to confirm that the specified accountabilities are being met. Naturally, the earlier discussed ‘clarity’ pre-requisite is an important input here, but also important is a context (systems, structures, infrastructure, a performance management system) in which routine and easy monitoring and measurement of performance against objectives can take place.
Once a goal has been clearly defined, translating it into something measurable is relatively easy. However, the reality is that goals usually need to be deconstructed into short and medium term goals - with associated measures and targets - so that performance can be regularly monitored and kept on track. Without the capacity to evaluate performance routinely and regularly, the person charged with holding a manager to account has no means of doing so. Under these conditions, accountability cannot exist.
Acceptance of Responsibility
Finally, managers must accept their accountabilities, recognising their responsibility as the person who can, must and will deliver. In nearly a decade of observing organisations embed these pre-requisites, we note that overall performance levels are higher when there is such ‘ownership’ of goals and objectives. Where managers do not feel accountable, they will not act accountably. Generally, where the first three conditions of; clarity, ability and measurability are met, this final condition emerges naturally.
Types of Accountability
Organisational accountabilities typically exist on a spectrum between two polar types; operational and strategic:
Operational accountabilities relate to a manager’s functional responsibilities in their role as head of an organisational sub-unit. For example the Sales Director is accountable for hitting sales growth targets, the HR Director is accountable for pay and reward. For this kind of accountability, ‘good performance’ is relatively easy to define, quantify and monitor; Were sales targets hit? Did staff get paid on time?
Accountability for performance of daily activities may be defined to include not only the ‘maintenance’ function (as per the job description) but also some element of performance ‘improvement’. The maintenance and improvement accountabilities are obviously linked; the outcome of improvement activity informs future incremental change to baseline targets associated with ‘maintenance’ activity.
The second type of accountability is strategic accountability. Strategic accountability reflects the expectation (of shareholders and other stakeholders) that senior managers are employed to do more than just manage and improve the organisation. This expectation is more about changing the organisation; often in fundamental ways, in a dynamic environment with multiple unknowns, where success is not so easy to specify. Such accountabilities are therefore more challenging to deliver against. Additionally, because large-scale change is invariably cross-functional it brings with it issues related to ‘authority’. A manager will nearly always find that getting things done outside their span of control is more difficult than within.
Strengthening performance accountabilities
2GC recommends a simple approach for rapidly strengthening performance accountabilities at senior and middle management levels. The approach is based on the 3rd Generation Balanced Scorecard methodology and engages the accountable management team to collectively define and assign individual manager responsibilities for specific aspects of organisational success; thus building a (genuinely) accountable management team. The process works to bring about the four pre-requisites for accountability: ability, clarity, measurement and acceptance.
Under this approach all necessary ‘authority’ i.e. the entire leadership team, is jointly engaged in the goal setting design process, so they have the ability to make decisions that transcend organisational barriers. As the relevant managers themselves collectively choose and define their strategic performance accountabilities, they instinctively select accountabilities that are rational and deliverable in the real world.
The process uses one-page definition documents to enable the clear specification of performance accountabilities. The five-year destination statement and in-year strategic objectives efficiently clarify what managers are collectively and individually accountable for at both operational, and strategic levels. A one-page definition of each objective’s measures and targets enables the leadership to monitor and control delivery performance, and hence accountability. Finally, because the management team themselves discuss, reach consensus on, and contract with each other on personal and shared accountabilities, they are much more likely to believe these accountabilities to be ‘correct’.
2GC’s accountable manager-centric approach ensures that the choices are made by the people who will deliver, thereby maximising the relevancy of the accountabilities to the management team and the individual acceptance of these accountabilities. Post-design, regular management review of delivery reinforces individual commitment to delivering against agreed accountabilities.