tBA5: Building businesses with accountability

Simon Wakeman
4 min readFeb 2, 2023
Photo by Aron Visuals / Unsplash

A lot’s talked in business about accountability, yet few people think about what it means.

And plenty of people tie themselves in metaphorical knots. They wrestle with the concepts of accountability and responsibility at work.

Yet accountability is deeply important in running and scaling businesses.

So what is accountability?

  • It’s when someone acknowledges and takes on responsibility for all the decisions, actions and work needed to achieve a particular outcome.
  • They embrace being ultimately answerable for the consequences of achieving or not achieving that outcome.
  • It comes with an understanding that in doing so, you also take on the responsibility for reporting and explaining how you’re progressing towards that outcome.

Accountability matters a lot. It helps scaling businesses maximise the value that people throughout the organisation can create.

Without a culture of distributed accountability, the business becomes slower. Decision-making is constrained to people who hold positional power.

Accountability is only ever taken. You can’t give someone accountability, however hard you try.

Leaders create the conditions for someone to take accountability for specific outcomes. They also have to decide how much of a problem it is if someone doesn’t take accountability.

Accountability can’t be shared between people. It’s something only one person can take.

And accountability isn’t just for people with big fancy job titles. It’s for everyone working in the business, regardless of role.

That’s because accountabilities can be nested. One person breaks down their accountability and in turn creates the conditions where others take accountability for more granular outcomes.

But doing this doesn’t absolve that person from having that overall accountability. They can’t delegate the consequences of not achieving the overall outcome.

There’s a distinction between proactive and reactive accountability too.

Reactive accountability is when people hold themselves accountable for failures. But they do this without having taking adequate steps to prevent the failure. It can be quite performative and not particularly useful in scaling businesses.

What matters is proactive accountability.

This is when people are on the front foot. They are always scanning for what might get in the way of achieving a particular goal. They do all they can to address those blockers early and work through them to effective solutions.

Creating a culture of accountability

So if we can’t give someone accountability, how do we increase accountability to help drive growth?

Having a clear direction for the business is important. Everyone on board needs to know where the business wants to head so they can understand the part they play.

This might be expressed as a vision, mission, purpose, goal or strategy. It doesn’t really matter as long as the direction is simple, understood and shared.

The businesses that I’ve worked with that have the strongest cultures of accountability are the ones that pay attention to the small things as well as the bigger picture.

The culture of accountability starts with the little details and caring about them. Being focussed on accountability for the small everyday aspects of work normalises accountability.

That culture of accountability scales as the business grows. The future organisation builds on the foundations of that early attention to small details. It makes the most of the experience and potential of the people joining the business later on.

Putting accountability into practice

In a past role as Managing Director at a growing digital agency we worked hard on accountability.

We saw three things that took accountability from the online handbook into the deep DNA of the organisation:

  1. Clarity of expectations.
    We set measurable and relevant outcomes that supported what the business needed to achieve.
  2. Communicated for commitment.
    We knew team members needed to understand why those outcomes mattered. Wherever we could we involved teams in shaping outcomes too. We looked for people to show tangible understanding and commitment to these outcomes.
  3. Consequences counted.
    We wanted an honest dialogue about what success or failure meant for people. We did this in a supportive and grown-up way. Too many businesses shy away from being honest about this or over-emphasise negative consequences.

Core concept — accountability

When an individual becomes answerable for achieving a defined outcome, accepting responsibility for all the decisions, actions and work needed.

Three questions to ask now

  1. How could you improve your own accountability in your work?
  2. How clear are team members about what is expected of them and their freedom to act to achieve those expectations?
  3. What signs have you seen of reactive or proactive accountability in the past six months?

Get deeper into this

1. The interplay between psychological safety and accountability is important. This article explains it well.

2. Exploring shame and accountability. Particularly useful when thinking about moving beyond reactive accountability.

Originally published at the Business Aside.
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Simon Wakeman

Consultant, fractional COO and non-executive director for scale-up businesses. NED @ National Support Network CIC. Trustee @ Caldecott Foundation.