Responsibility and accountability

If people don’t own responsibility or accountability, there are reasons.

It might be a lack of safety, a punitive culture. Nobody will take responsibility if it is going to hurt.

It might be realising the reality that they cannot fully control the outcome and hence risk looking bad.

It might be that they feel they won’t get the support they need to get the job done.

It might be that they are disengaged and unmotivated.

Responsibility and accountability are terms that I’m uncomfortable with.

 No individual has control of the outcomes of their work, only their own contribution, which is often indistinguishable from the whole.

Therefore I always struggle to find a definition of accountable that isn’t punitive, with at least an element of scapegoating.

Even when it is forward looking “who will take ownership for doing this?”, (a) that can’t be a promise that they are held to because see above and (b) why does one person have to carry that when we are supposed to be moving towards collective decision and action?

(N.B. None of this has anything to do with accountability for socially unacceptable or illegal behaviours. Different issue.  In fact treating failure at work the same punitive way as antisocial behaviour is one definition of the problem)

I’m reduced to seeing as a person who is the figurehead, the focus, the hub, the clearing house, the curator, for all of which “accountable” is a terrible word.

A useful distinction is accountability/responsibility for behaviours not for results. We can control our behaviours, not our outcomes.  So the words become less theatening if success is defined in terms of behaviours/actions not deliverables.

None of these are the “fault” of the individual. All of them are consequences of the system of work.

The notion of accountability—and its lesser cousin, responsibility—often pop up in the context of business, as if both of those ideas are good things. A culture of accountability, we’re told, is essential to running a business. The word “accountable” appears all over the 2020 Scrum Guide.

I don’t buy any of it. A culture of accountability is actively destructive, and responsibility isn’t exactly positive, either.

Allan Holub