The Accountability Trap

The Accountability Trap

Accountability without authority is a recipe for failure. Here's how to make sure it doesn't happen to you.

Practicalities of Change

"Okay," Allison sighed, "I'll grant that if everybody accepted their accountability for compliance, we could let them decide when and how much to change. But how do we get them to take that accountability seriously?"

"Let's look at their incentives," I replied. "Sure, if something bad happens, the whole organization suffers. But whose job is it to fix the mess; or in the worst case, who gets fired? It doesn't do any good to fire you when the managers running the business make poor decisions and cause a serious problem. In fact, using you as a scapegoat only reduces others' incentives for real compliance."

She eagerly agreed. "Scapegoat" does not look good on a resume!

I reminded her that, in reality, getting changes to happen is far more likely if everybody is accountable and hence willingly implementing compliance initiatives to protect their own hides. On the other hand, the odds of successful change are far lower if she's forcing it on the organization. Thus, overall, the success rates of compliance initiatives are higher, not lower, when the decision is left to each manager for his or her own group.

Compliance as a Service

"But remember," Allison said, "the regulators require a single point of contact. And even if it weren't required, process changes cut across organizational boundaries. Someone has to look after the big picture."

This was a perfect segue into discussing how she could achieve the critically important objectives of compliance without accountability for others' behaviours or authority over how others run their groups.

I suggested that Allison think of her job as a "coordinator" who sells services to her peers (though money doesn't change hands) to help them with their accountability for compliance. One of those services is to bring others together and help them agree on changes that cross organizational boundaries. She can then help them implement the change in their respective groups, not as the project manager accountable for results but rather as a project facilitator and coordinator.

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