The Mistakes, Myths and Truths About Accountability
This book review originally appeared in Baltimore and Washington SmartCEO Magazine November 2010 issue.
Stop for a moment and ask yourself, “What is the most important driver of success in great companies?” Go ahead, jot down a few ideas. If you’re like most people, you’ve probably written things down like great products, great marketing, word-of-mouth or luck.
One of the most overlooked success drivers is developing a culture of accountability. In my experience, accountability, or more appropriately the lack of it, is the biggest reason businesses fail to reach their potential. Millions of dollars of income and billions of dollars of valuation are lost within small and mid-market growth companies because of a lack of accountability.
Accountability is more than simply doing what you say you’re going to do (though that is a key component). Accountability is a comprehensive approach that ensures all aspects of communication – both internally and externally – are completely aligned with intent and, further, that all action aligns with desired intent as well. There is probably nothing more complicated – or more valuable – than creating a culture of accountability.
It is for this reason that any time a book comes along promising meaningful insight into creating and maintaining accountability, I jump on it. While on vacation this summer, I came across just that. Roger Connors and Tom Smith have been writing about accountability for years, most notably in the their previous bestseller The Oz Principle.
In their newest book, How Did That Happen: Holding People Accountable for Results the Positive, Principled Way, Connors and Smith take concepts that have previously focused on creating individual accountability and apply them to creating organizational accountability. The authors have been consulting with corporate America for many years and promise to provide readers with a comprehensive how-to manual for creating accountability in any organization. They achieve about half of the promise.
Connors and Smith share a simple four-step process for effectively establishing expectations. Establishing clear expectations, as the authors point out, is the critical first step in establishing accountability. Without clear expectations, you have no chance to create real alignment.
The first step in the process is forming the expectation. Mark Twain once said, “Great communications isn’t about communicating so that you can be understood; it’s about communicating so that you can not be misunderstood.” The same is true when it comes to establishing expectations.
The difficulty associated with creating this type of clarity is probably the main reason that that vast majority of people tend to overlook this step and jump right into action. While forming expectations can be difficult, the time spent creating clarity will return at least a five-fold factor.
Connors and Smith point out that this type of clarity is required up and down the “expectations chain.” That means anybody involved in creating the desire result needs to be considered – whether their position is above yours, several levels below yours, or even outside your organization through the vendors you use.
To make the effort easier, the authors provide the acronym “FORM” – Frame-able, Obtainable, Repeatable and Measurable.
The second step in the process is to clearly communicate the expectations. Communicating why the expectations are important is every bit as important as communicating the desired results. While you can certainly “command” certain actions, in today’s hectic, change-constant world, it is important that you enroll people’s hearts as well as their heads. When people clearly understand why something is important, they are far more capable of adjusting on their own as circumstances dictate.
The third step in the process is to ensure they are aligned. “When it comes to achieving key expectations, it is important to recognize that there are different levels of alignment. The high level that brings full ownership and personal investment is what we call ‘Complete Alignment.’ All other levels of alignment, with their lower level of buy-in, fall into the category that we call ‘Complyment.’”
It is my experience that the vast majority of small and mid-size business executives confuse “complyment” with “complete alignment.” This mistake is the primary reason that managers often complain about employees’ commitment.
The final step in setting clear expectations is to inspect. As the saying goes, “inspect what you expect.” Probably the biggest surprise I’ve had working with small and mid-market growth companies is just how little they inspect their expectations. Some of this is on account of simple laziness, but a bigger cause is the apparent fear that executives have that they may turn off their top performers by “micro-managing” them. As the authors point out, the reality is quite the opposite.
With the challenges coming your way, creating a culture of accountability will no longer be an optional advantage for businesses, but a critical “ticket to the ball game.”