Accountability in Knowledge-Based
by Bruce Klatt and Shaun Murphy
Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. Accountability
seems to be a similar phenomenon eliciting frequent comments about its absence,
yet not a lot of constructive effort to ensure its presence. We hear a lot
about the need for improved 'accountability' in our organizations and institutions,
and we all have a 'common sense' notion of what is meant by this term. Yet
'accountability' has remained elusive in practice. Part of the reason may
be that we've lacked the tools for enacting accountability in meaningful and
This is why we took up Twain's challenge and published the book, Accountability:
Getting a Grip on Results . We think it provides the tools for ensuring
accountability in the midst of the dynamic ambiguity that constitutes our
daily work lives. Nowhere is this ambiguity more evident than in the domain
of knowledge workers.
Peter Drucker coined the term 'knowledge-worker' to distinguish people who
add value to information (e.g., financial advisors, engineers). Likely over
80% of people in organizations today are knowledge-workers. These are the
assets that go home at night! Their work requires more than routine performance,
following orders, and repetitive unskilled motions. They are required to use
judgment and discretion on the job, and much of their contribution comes from
expertise and 'extra role behaviors' demanding creativity, commitment to results,
and the ability to influence. As such, knowledge-workers are far from being
'subordinates' in the traditional sense of the word, and their performance
can't be 'managed' or 'supervised' the way one is able to watch over and control
production-workers. Accessing this significant 'discretionary effort' can
make the difference between a company that is struggling and one that is stellar.
One of the tools we have developed is called an Accountability Agreement.
It reveals the potential for discretionary effort that is available, and clarifies
the business bargain between a company and its knowledge workers. The following
key principles of accountability form the foundation for the Accountability
The Key Principles of Accountability
At the foundation of any business transaction is the premise of a 'fair
deal.' Yet, the fair deal between an employee and his or her employer is much
more subtle and complex to manage than the fair deal between a shopper and
a shopkeeper. Accountability Agreements (see below) are based on the key principles
of accountability, and equip leaders and employees to harness this complexity.
They enable organizations to crystallize often unspoken trades and business
bargains into explicit promises, expectations, results, and consequences.
These six principles build the foundation of accountability in modern organizations.
1) Accountability is a statement of personal promise
Accountability applies only to individuals, and is both a personal promise
and obligation, to yourself and to others, to deliver specific defined results.
Being accountable within an organization means you agree to be operationally
defined as the sole agent for an outcome, regardless of the often-inadequate
level authority or control, which you have been formally assigned by the organization.
2) Accountability for results means activities aren't enough
Organizations do not pay people to keep busy. It is important to understand
'what' business results are expected, and to focus energy accordingly. If
it's your area, department, function, project, or program, you are accountable:
regardless of circumstances, and regardless of your role, pay grade, or level
in the hierarchy. Everyone from the CEO to the janitor is accountable for
achieving business results within her or his own area of the business.
3) Accountability for results requires room for judgment and decision-making
Within agreed accountabilities, an individual must be granted discretion to
make decisions and exercise personal judgement. If you are not allowed to
use any judgment or discretion on-the-job, then your boss can only hold you
responsible for activities (i.e., for doing what you're told), not for achieving
business results. On the other hand, accountability is invaluable where people
are given room for decision-making, and are asked to manage to specific business
results. Simply put, empowerment and accountability must co-exist. Empowerment
doesn't mean you have full control, and not having full control doesn't lessen
4) Accountability is neither shared nor conditional
Accountabilities are not shared at the same level in an organization. That
is, your leader assigns a specific part of his or her accountability only
to you, not to your peers or to anyone else in the organization. Accountabilities
are also without condition. If it's your area, you are accountable, regardless
of circumstances. Individuals must go beyond traditional 'organizational authority'
and use influence to achieve business results in their area of accountability.
5) Accountability for the organization as a whole belongs to everyone
Every employee is accountable for thinking and acting on what is best for
the organization as a whole. The acid test of 'accountability for the whole'
is passed when a leader gives up people or resources to another department,
or to a project outside their area, because they know this is best for the
organization as a whole.
6) Accountability is meaningless without positive consequences
Positive consequences are earned based on results realized in an individual's
area of accountability. Accountability is not about finding fault, assigning
blame, or punishing. It is about rewarding success and learning from mistakes.
An example of a positive consequence (something is received) is being offered
a choice of future job assignments. An example of a negative consequence (something
is denied) is not receiving a normally expected salary increase. Punitive
consequences (something is taken away) are counter productive and not what
accountability is about.
Guided by these principles, accountability is articulated via the Accountability
Agreement, a knowledge-worker's personal, good faith bargain with their organization.
The Accountability Agreement
The following seven elements are completed when articulating an individual's
1) Business Focus Statement
Describes the business you are in, and the products and services you provide.
Think in terms of being in business for yourself within the organization.
My Business is quality care for our residents in a way that engages families
and significant others as partners, while promoting choice, dignity, and respect
for clients, families, and staff.
2) Operational Accountabilities
The range of outcomes that must be achieved for you to be successful in your
business focus. They describe significant outcomes, not activities.
I am personally accountable for:
o Maintaining operating profits at the XYZ Gas Plant;
o Long-term protection of manufacturing assets.
3) Leadership Accountabilities
These are often held in common within a workgroup. They draw attention to
relationships and the work environment you are seeking to establish.
I am personally accountable for:
o The success of my direct reports.
o My own learning and development as a leader.
4) Support Requirements
Success is always dependent on receiving adequate support and resources. Specific
requests for support in the organization are negotiated and agreed.
To succeed I require the following support:
o (from Ops. Comm.) Timely, accurate information on project status.
o (from Tom Smith) Complete XYZ systems design by April 15th.
Goals are measurable or observable, and time-based.
o Achieve a 15% return on invested capital during the 3rd quarter.
o Complete my 360 degree feedback by May 30/02.
6) Positive Consequences
People are asked to take an adult-to-adult approach with their employer, and
negotiate what they consider to be a 'fair business bargain.'
o I will be funded to attend one international conference next year.
o I will be offered a developmental role by March/03.
7) Evergreen Plan
Without the discipline of regular review, the opportunity offered by Accountability
/ Alignment will not be fully realized.
o Renew Accountability Agreements annually within the workgroup.
We've stopped complaining about the lack of Accountability and provided a
tool to make it understandable, negotiable, and accessible. We have worked
with dozens of corporations and thousands of individuals to articulate Accountability
Agreements. Without exception they have found it to be a refreshing departure
from the all-to-common fatalistic disappointment and pointless blame that
goes on within organizations. The Accountability Agreement is a tool that
works. We encourage you to try it the next time you are tempted to grumble
that "people just don't seem to be accountable."
The authors, Bruce Klatt, MA, and Shaun Murphy, PhD whose authoring credits
include the best-selling Accountability: Getting a Grip on Results, The
Ultimate Training Workshop Handbook, and The Encyclopedia of Leadership,
have over 50 years combined experience in assisting organizations achieve
change to further their success. Recognized experts in organizational design
and principal partners in Murphy Klatt Consulting, one of Canadašs leading
management consulting firms, Bruce Klatt and Shaun Murphy have helped corporations
in both Europe and North America to achieve their business goals. For additional
information visit www.murphyklatt.com
or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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