The Key to Better Accountability

Associations often get mired in the inability to meet particular goals—leading some to play the blame game. According to one expert, the secret to getting a handle on accountability might involve taking a higher-level look at your processes.

When a project goes off the rails, leaders and stakeholders are often eager to point fingers.

But the truth is, if a project has gone wrong, it might just be a sign that your approach to accountability isn’t working.

Accountability was one of many points of discussion in the recent “Association Apocalypse” report from the consulting firm Propel. The report noted, among other things, the ways that accountability often collapses in organizations. According to a Partners in Leadership report cited by Propel, 93 percent of surveyed employees struggled to align their work with an accountability strategy at all.

Part of the reason for that, says Propel Cofounder Jamie Notter, is that the view of accountability is often quite limited—and not really correct.

“I think most associations are still stuck on viewing accountability as blaming people for not doing what they said they could do,” Notter says. “And if you want to blame people for not doing what they said they’re gonna do, that is fine. Just don’t call that accountability.”

Clearing the Air on Accountability

Instead, organizations should treat accountability as a way to ensure that results are happening based on stated goals. The challenge, of course, is that goals often change midstream, leading to confusion and making it hard to figure out how much progress has been made.

One way to manage moving goal posts, as Notter wrote in a recent blog post, is to think in terms of broader models that work across years and can be adjusted as needed. Basically, by considering the work that you’re doing in a long-term context, you can ensure that a project is working in the spirit of a broader model rather than a narrower plan, even if things change in the middle.

“So, stop obsessing over whether your 13-week plan is the exact right plan and just say, ‘Well, this is my model for how we’re going to get there. And then we’ll adjust,’” he says.

To put it another way, accountability should be about the big picture—represented by your overarching model—not just narrower goals.

Don’t Think in Terms of Failure

One thing that can lead to a poor accountability practice is an approach that seems focused on blame rather than organizational results. In this context, Notter says metrics can help lead the way to broader goals. Some organizations will use those metrics to figure out where their weaknesses might be when finishing a project—but there’s a real risk of “having a culture where the metrics are about failure,” as Notter puts it.

“If you get a culture that’s defending whether you’re behind as opposed to learning from when you’re behind, then you’re kind of in trouble,” he says.

Think Systemically

Ultimately, the solution comes from treating accountability as an organizational process in which everyone has a role to ensure that things are working. One way to achieve this is by giving people ownership of specific processes. There’s a real distinction between ownership and blame, Notter notes. He says ownership is a matter of knowing that “someone has got this.”

“Knowing that someone is paying attention to the trajectory of this particular goal does not mean that person is the one in charge, or can be blamed for it,” Notter says.

What it does mean, however, is that someone can help look at the project at a higher level and ensure that it’s moving along, building trust in knowing that someone is owning the process. There’s room for systemic thinking at lower levels as well. One example: Notter and fellow Propel Cofounder Maddie Grant help encourage accountability in their day-to-day tasks by using a software application that flags where in a project something gets “stuck.” The idea is that the lack of completion might be holding up the overall project, but the terminology avoids blame and instead contextualizes the hold-up in the larger scope of the project. If someone missed something, it treats accountability as a systemic issue to solve, so that “stuck” gets unstuck and the project keeps moving. Eliminating blame from the process can help move things along, Notter says.


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Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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