Accountability in Knowledge-Based Organizations
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 practical ways.

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 Agreement

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 your accountability.

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 Accountability Agreement

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.

5) Goals
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.

In Summary
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 or contact .

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Copyright 2001 by Bruce Klatt and Shaun Murphy. All rights reserved.

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