The concept of accountability often has negative emotions attached to it. Ever wonder why that is? Maybe it’s the “hot potato” syndrome. Too many of us have been held accountable for events we have no hope of controlling.
McKinsey, a leading management consulting company, recently published an article in the McKinsey Quarterly which defines accountability as follows:
“Accountability – the ability of people to understand what is expected of them, exercise authority, and take responsibility for delivering results…”
Most definitions focus on responsibility. This one stresses the need for clear goals and sufficient authority, before people can be held accountable for results. I’m certain that those of us who have struggled (and perhaps failed) to achieve the results expected of us have often felt that goals were poorly defined, or that we weren’t given the resources and authority to achieve them.
Feeling a little queasy about your current project or role?
Most people think of managing knowledge or IP as a process. After all, there is tons of knowledge being created every day and your job is to “get control of it.” However, what does that really mean? Let’s break down the above definition into three components.
1) Understanding what’s expected
By clearly defining the goal(s), you address the “understand” component of the above definition. Be aware that understanding doesn’t necessarily mean agreement, but everyone must be clear on the goal. For example, a law firm’s marketing department may want a secure, searchable database of top clients that is linked to both internal and external information sources.
It is critical that all of these terms in the goal are clearly defined (for lawyers, that should be second nature, as a section titled “definition of terms” usually starts on page two of most contracts). What exactly is meant by “secure, searchable, internal and external information”? If not pinned down and understood at the outset, the goal posts can easily be moved.
Measurement and consequences
In his Harvard Business Review article, Ron Ashkenas discusses measurement and consequences. Related to a clear understanding of the goal(s) is a clear understanding of how results are to be measured – what constitutes a successful outcome, and by extension, what failure looks like. It’s easy to be accountable for success, but when people fear the downside of failure (e.g. in a culture that doesn’t encourage risk-taking and routinely punishes mistakes), they naturally avoid accountability.
2) Exercisable authority
Authority can effect both implementation and user adoption of IP or KM initiatives. A lack of clear authority may result in bad decisions about technology. For example, IT might dictate the use of a platform that lacks critical search capabilities. Alternatively, IT staff may simply not be available, or may lack skills in this area. Without someone having the authority to resolve these types of issues, the project may die a quick and ugly death.
The Oxford dictionary defines authority as “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” KM and IP management initiatives are completely dependent on user adoption. While project owners may not be able to require individuals to support a KM or IP initiative, senior management does have this authority, and their active advocacy must be available to the project owner.
3) Results delivered
People who initiate and lead KM or IP management programs are usually results oriented. In fact, they probably don’t get the opportunity if they’re not. Project and program leaders want to deliver visible, tangible results. They get a buzz from hitting their goals and receiving recognition for having contributed organizational value. In exchange for being empowered to make a difference, they are willing to be held accountable.
All they ask is that they be given the tools, resources and authority to see the project through to successful implementation.
Again, most people think of managing knowledge or IP as a process, but you guessed it: it’s also a project, and that’s how it should start.
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