Irresponsible Accountability

How familiar is this narrative to you?

<Setting: Triage/shiproom discussion not so far away and not so long ago… Key contributors and decision makers are all in the room. They are trying to collaborate towards determining what bugs need to be fixed before they can ship. The planned ship date is looming ominously just around the corner….>

Dev Manager (of Managers): We should fix these bugs…

Dev: What’s the bar? I thought we were recall class only as of today.

Dev Manager: They are easy… We should do them… You guys should just be able to get them out of the way.


Sometime later

Dev: There’s one last thing I’d like to discuss. It’s clear that from the bugs we accepted today, we are ignoring the recall class only bar.

Dev Manager: I don’t care about the bar; we need to do the right thing.

Dev: But if we keep doing that, how are going to land this project in time?

Dev Manager: I’m sorry. I don’t understand your question or concern.

Program Manager: um, Mr. DM sir, what Mr. Dev means is we’d like to understand what Leadership’s plan is to get to the quality goals with the dates specified?

Dev Manager: What?!?! That’s *your* job. You want me to do that too?!?

When I heard this story from one of my mentees, I had already been thinking on the nature of Accountability Cultures. His team is in a bit of a mess right now as they quickly try to align reality with promises made to customers… They have bitten off far more than can chew. This is made worse by the strong lack of leadership in his team as evident by the Dev Manager in the story above, who is clearly a JeDI (and no, that is not good!).

So what do I mean by an accountability culture? I mean those workplaces where management is focused on assigning owners to tasks/work for the purpose of “knowing who is responsible”. These organizations are generally hierarchical in nature and this ownership model is intended to both “empower” and “control” how work is being done. However, far too often, the results it achieves is simply the knowledge of who, precisely, to blame when it fails. In other words, it does not optimize for helping teams succeed, but rather for helping them to fail. Teams who want to succeed figure out ways to work around their management’s policies by “going dark” and doing work in secret or working much harder than needed to satisfy management’s quest for owners and the desire to move the business forward.

My litmus test for the accountable person for anything: S/he is the one who apologizes when things go astray and is the one looking to make things right. This is significantly different than “the one who is to blame”.

Thankfully, I have only worked in 2 such teams where I felt the culture simply was too toxic to be fixed. Management usually does not want, nor understand, that their behavior is causing a negative downstream effect on their staff.

How do teams get to this point?

There’s how I think this happens.

  • Spider is beating the Starfish: Human society is constantly fighting it out over the best way to organize in order to produce the best results. Ori Brafman writes about this in his book The Starfish and the Spider.
    • Starfish models are headless. Teams of people work together to achieve goals. The individual is tantamount and bands together with others towards complimentary goals. If you played or observed World of Warcraft or similar games, you’ve seen this model in action. They are tribal in nature, fast, and have a lot of flexibility, but they don’t efficiently utilize resources in a single direction. Instead they are effective at being able to change direction at any moment in time and collaboration amongst the team’s members thrives. Decisions can be made quickly as the framework is principled, not tactical. (eg “do the features in your team’s backlog that add the most fiscal ROI”, vs. “Add the ability to Bold text in a help file”)
    • Spider models have a head. They scale to greater number of people, but have a critical flaw. Kill the head and the body dies with it. If the head has a bad plan, the body goes along for the ride. This is also known as “Command and control“. Competition thrives in this model. Folks quickly understand that to “win” you don’t need to convince others….. Only the head. Spider models are more effective when you know the objective to be achieved and how it needs to happen, but they are not effective when decisions need to be made quickly and repeatedly, such as is common in the Software services world.
  • Peter Principle is alive and well (it’s proven!)
    • People are getting promoted to where they are no longer competent.
      • They are not taking training to understand how to scale to their new role, nor are they learning the state of the art techniques
      • They have to make more and more decisions with less and less data, which is harder and harder. So the validity of their decision becomes more and more unstable.
  • Jensen’s Law of Politics – For years, I have been teaching folks this insight: “He who is defensive, loses… Always…”
    • One cannot win *any* game by playing defense only.”

So what happens is: Spider models get propagated (for a variety of reasons (control, $$, clarity of purpose, etc). People then get promoted to the point where they can no longer scale to efficiently provide good decisions to their subordinates. Since spider models are competitive by nature, people quickly (subconsciously) begin to realize the way *they* continue to win/keep the head position is by taking the offensive position.

    They blame others.

This then gets sustained in a vicious loop:

  1. First off, Leaders hate getting blamed.
  2. But, Leaders don’t have the time to learn how to do things differently
  3. But, this process, as a decision making framework, is too slow. Leaders don’t (can’t?) take time to understand the root causes to failure or the dependencies needed to satisfy success. So they keep plodding on. Essentially, “hoping” they succeed.
  4. But, since they don’t, they resort to finger pointing and brute force tactics (“30 hr” workdays) to set things straight again.

Is this fixable?

I think so, but teams *must* learn Starfish techniques and the environment must support it.

  1. In my mind, this means any form of Adaptive project styles (scrum, kanban, XP, etc). But they need to make sure they are *adapting* and not just iterating… Teams should be encouraged to act, but to validate everything with actual learning.
  2. Create an environment where people commit to goals, not told to commit. Don’t fool yourself. People cannot be told to commit to anything. In order for them to commit, it must fulfill some important purpose to them, it must be achievable, and they must understand the risks, the rewards, and the degrees of freedom they have if the project goes out into the weeds.
  3. Teams need to be taught to work together to achieve goals. Taught to trust and (more importantly) rely on their peers to move forward.
  4. There is an important distinction between solving problems and owning solutions. Owning the solution doesn’t guarantee that it actually solves any problem that is important. For the past 3 teams I have led, I have had a team motto that I adore: “my team’s job is to solve problems, not write tools or code. If I can leverage another team’s component, I will. NIH kicks ass!” (not invented here)
  5. Give folks guidance and principles to make decisions on their own. Enforce this. This one is probably the hardest to do. Folks get used to not owning their own decisions. It’s uncomfortable for them. “Are you going to blame me if I fail?” My style is to let individuals make the decision, but reinforce that the team will own cleanup if the decision fails. I try to create a spirit on the team that individuals are shepherding work, but the whole team is accountable for all work in progress (see earlier post). This helps people feel empowered and forces the team to have each other’s back.

Lastly, I recently got certified as a Program Consultant for the Scaled Agile Framework, which means for the next year I am allowed to teach it and certify others. One of the really great things I think those folks have figured out, is that in order to truly scale, you need to find an efficient way to decouple the business strategy from the implementation tactics. I’m over-simplifying, but in essence:

  • Management owns setting strategic direction, measurement of success, cadence, and funding
  • Team owns creating an implementation they commit to.
  • Management owns creating the decision framework that is principled based. Teams are pre-informed with the constraints.
  • Team owns making the decisions, staying within the constraints.  Team owns correctly setting expectations with Management.
  • When things go wrong, both sit in a room as peers to work out how to adapt. Both have an important and distinct role to serve. When they are working together to thrive, the business does too.

Special Bonuses:

  • Here’s one of my favorite videos of the famous All Blacks rugby team. Showing what committed teamwork looks like.
  • The US military defines Command and Control as: “The Exercise of authority and direction by a properly designated commander over assigned forces in the accomplishment of the mission. Command and control functions are performed through an arrangement of personnel, equipment, communications, facilities, and procedures which are employed by a commander in planning, directing, coordinating, and controlling forces and operations in the accomplishment of the mission”

    Their most recent investigations show that C2 doesn’t scale due:

    • The essence of command lies in the cognitive processes of the commander.
    • the influx of data now available
    • The speed at which the operation must execute.

8 thoughts on “Irresponsible Accountability

  1. Great post! I think that rather than the apologetic approach (vs blame, which is poison, I agree), is that we look at failures as a learning experience and accept that we will make mistakes, hold a high bar for not letting the same ones happen again, and the “accountability” is for the people who are responsible to demonstrate that they have learned, identify what they missed, and describe how they can avoid in the future. I don’t want to hear people say that they are sorry, I want to hear them say they learned and got smarter because they fell off the bike.

    • Greg: thanks for your comment and feedback. When/if I ever edit this post for some other publication, I will definitely adjust my own litmus test. I tend to agree. For years, I have been teaching folks that “it’s ok to make mistakes, but failing to learn from them is criminal”. I hadn’t thought to combine these two concepts together. I think you are correct to do so.

      That said, whether or not the individual actually apologizes is not really relevant. My point is the accountable person is the one who *feels* accountable, not the one who is *assigned* it.

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    • Yes. Good catch, Ron! Thank you. My intent was to capture the image of a downward death spiral much more than to comment on it’s slow moving stickiness. Although, it now occurs to me that both might be appropriate. Updated, nevertheless.

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