Naomi Stanford is widely-known for her insightful writing on organization design. In a recent LinkedIn post, she has questioned the ways in which accountability is understood and applied in an organizational context. This challenge is long overdue. I strongly agree with her that this taken-for-granted aspect of conventional management practice is in urgent need of a rethink.
At the same time, I would base my argument on a different issue from those that she has identified.
Ready… Blame… Fire!
Too often, the term “accountability” is used as a synonym for blame. It serves as a label to hang around the necks of ‘the guilty’ when things appear to have ‘gone wrong’. This does little to encourage people to comment candidly on their own practice and performance. Or to enable them, individually and collectively, to work to improve what’s going on. Most importantly, though, it completely ignores the complex social reality of organization, through which ‘outcomes’ emerge in practice.
At one point in her post, Naomi refers to a report entitled, “Culture and Accountability in Organizations”. In it, the authors say, “[Although] all cultures have accountability systems to create predictability, order, and control, the nature of accountability systems can vary considerably across cultures.”
The suggestion that it is possible for managers to “create predictability, order, and control”, in anything other than the basic technology-heavy elements of wider techno-human processes, remains a depressingly familiar mantra. This is completely at odds with people’s everyday lived experience of organizational life. Even where technology and procedural routines dominate, these have emerged from - and continue to be sustained by - the cultural, political, and social dynamics of everyday human interaction. It is this same self-organizing, patterning process of conversational interaction which provides the sense of order and 'everyday predictability' that allow people to go on participating together.
Whatever happens in practice, then, (whether ‘good, ‘bad’, or ‘indifferent’) is not determined by formally designed structures and accountability systems. It emerges instead from the widespread interplay of myriad local interactions. Some of these reflect people’s formally allocated roles and relationships. Many more take place informally, whether intentionally, habitually, or as chance encounters. This is as much the case in an unalloyed “command and control” regime as it is in organizational settings designed to promote openly collaborative and ‘self-managed’ ways of working.
Nobody acts independently. Everybody is always both enabled and constrained in what they do by the actions, inactions, and interactions of everyone else.
So where does this leave the notion of accountability?
The a-b-i-l-i-t-y to account
It’s in the detail of people’s moment-to-moment exchanges that organization is enacted and ‘outcomes’ emerge. Managers would therefore do well to direct their attention towards the quality of people’s participation in this ongoing interactional process. Central to this is people’s ability to account for the specifics of their own practice. And it’s in this particular sense that accountability has meaning and potential value. Whatever the specific context, people should be able (and en-abled) to give an increasingly informed account of the whys, whats, and hows of their actions.
In this way, it is likely that they will be better placed to:
- draw lessons from their own experience, to enhance their understanding and practical judgement - especially where things turn out differently from their own and others' intentions;
- deal, in increasingly competent/expert ways, with the issues and challenges that they face, with less need to seek advice and/or permission (i.e. facilitate their response-ability);
- recognize if and when judgement based on their past experience is inadequate to address those unfamiliar situations that are not amenable to structured analysis and 'if you do this you'll (probably!) get that' logic; and
- offer practical insights from their own practice that might stimulate and enrich the ongoing conversations, actions, and interactions of others.
In relation to accountability, this implies a shift away from the judgement of people in a right/wrong, good/bad, and success/failure way. Instead, it seeks to provoke and support movement in people's ongoing practice, in ways intended to facilitate joint sense-making, collaborative problem solving, and a continuing search for (if not guarantee of) performance improvement.