Implementing a Culture of Accountability – It’s Not Easy But it Can Be Done

Dwight Mihalicz,

You have your strategy in place. It was an inclusive process that involved exhaustive consultation with stakeholder and employees. All the Key Performance Indicators have been set and assigned. The Scorecard is in place, and regular reporting is required.

And still things are going off the rails!

It’s time for a culture of accountability, you say?

Not so fast. The issue that most organizations run into with a culture change is that it doesn’t stick with the organization. It has to be managed as a change project – really a transformation project. This requires the CEO and senior management coming to grips with what will be done differently in the organization.

Most change processes start with a lot of work at the top of the organization, with multiple inclusive consultative processes. That’s all good. Where the change processes fall short is when it comes to the basic question of: “How are we going to work together differently?” The same factors that drive successful strategy execution also drive successful transformation projects, such as culture change. In the absence of working together differently, things sill slip back into the old way of doing things.

Driving your culture into one of accountability requires implementing an accountability and authority framework such as The Effective Point of Accountability®. It is important to have a framework that provides for “how we manage here” and “how we work together here” so that the vision for the transformed organization can be driven by all managers throughout the whole organization. All employees must be as engaged as possible in making it happen.

A New Culture Requires a New Language

A very large part of the success of an accountability and authority framework has to do with language. By establishing common terms, and using them precisely, employees are able to communicate with each other in a consistent way.

In the March 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review, Sull, Homkes & Sull discuss their research on strategy execution. One of their findings explains why work that is delegated down the organization is not sufficiently focused. In spite of ongoing communications for the CEO about strategic initiative, in their poll fewer than one-third of the CEOs management team could name even two of the five top strategic priorities. Only 55% of the middle managers were able to name even one of their company’s top five priorities.

With respect to work flowing across the organization, the same authors found that only 9% of managers say they can rely on colleagues in other functions and units all the time, and just half say they can rely on them most of the time. Moreover, efforts to resolve the resulting conflicts are handled badly two times out of three—resolved after a significant delay (38% of the time), resolved quickly but poorly (14%), or simply left to fester (12%).

Why is this happening? Consider the typical means of delegation:

  • From the CEO: “The CFO is in charge of the budget process.”

What does this mean in practical, day-to-day terms? It is often left to the interpretation of those involved, and as a result conflict ensures. Consider instead the power of:

  • From the CEO: “The CFO is accountable for recommending a budget process which I will approve. The CFO will be accountable for monitoring that we are all using the process, and will coordinate the annual budget process each year.”

As the terms, “recommend policy, processes and standards”, “monitor”, and “coordinate” are all defined terms, each party knows exactly what is involved.

How is the language established into the organization? By using it, starting with the CEO and the Executive Management Team. Part of the establishment of the framework is using the language in everyday conversations. The other, larger part, is ensuring that structured conversations take place at each management table to discuss and reach a common understanding of the relationships at that level in the organization.

Of course this is easier said than done. Ideally, an organization-wide accountability and authority framework, approved and monitored by the CEO, should be put in place. Without the right system in place, well-intentioned decisions are made by managers that result in work that is wrong, duplicated or not delivered in the right timeframe.

By establishing an accountability and authority framework for how work flows down the organization, the CEO helps each manager understand what their role is, what they are accountable for and what resources they have available to them. The right framework also provides measures for quality, quantity, timeliness and available resources, so managers know what authority they have to do the work. They can then use that information to take initiative and make decisions that move the organization forward.

Accountability and authority frameworks have been given a bad rap in the modern organization, because “self-managed teams” and “empowerment” do not fit with what is often misinterpreted as “bureaucratic” or “command-and-control” initiatives. We all know these latter approaches are inappropriate for the fast moving pace of the 21st century organization. However, frameworks for delegating work are critically important. Unless there is a commonly understood way to delegate work down the organization, people will flounder, failing to focus on the right work. On the other hand, if everyone is told exactly what to do at every step, the result is no less dysfunctional, and incredibly inefficient!

The challenge is to find a happy medium between restrictive and counterproductive command-and-control, and systems such as self-managed teams that diffuse resources with inconsistent activity.

The challenge for today’s CEO is in finding a happy medium: providing appropriate frameworks so that when managers do take initiative and use their judgment in an empowered way, they do it within context, with outcomes that are in line with expectations. The CEO must go against the grain of popular thinking to put a system in place that outlines and identifies the basic accountability and authority each manager needs to appropriately guide decision-making throughout the organization.

There are two aspects to the establishment of an accountability and authority framework in an organization.

  • How work flows down the organization – Managerial Accountability and Authority
  • How work flows across the organization – Cross Functional Managerial Accountability and Authority.

Both can be addressed and implemented at the same time, but language becomes very important. Unfortunately, in management sciences, there is very little consistency in how we use words. Unless these are defined, clarity is almost impossible.

Success in this requires significant work but has huge payoffs. It requires its own blog which is in production. In the meantime you can read more about delegation here, and about cross functional work here.

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Dwight Mihalicz

Dwight Mihalicz has over 40 years’ experience helping local, national, and international organizations achieve greater productivity, efficiency, and performance.
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