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Is accountability the wrong conversation?

Jun 20, 2024

“How do we hold ourselves accountable?”

I love it when someone asks this question at the end of a team offsite or planning session. 

But, rather than letting people answer it straight away, I like to get them to dig a little deeper, by asking: “Where’s that question coming from? What are you really asking?”

I do that because the topic of “accountability” often serves as a lazy shortcut for other important conversations. For example:

  • Are we serious about what we just agreed to? Did we even agree to it?
  • Are we prepared to invest more time in this conversation after today?
  • How do we make sure ‘business as usual’ doesn’t wash away all the good work we’ve just done?
  • How does today shape the things I do tomorrow?
  • What excuses are we prepared to tolerate?
  • Are we prepared to hold each other to the decisions we’ve just made?
  • How do we prioritise this conversation amidst everything else going on?
  • Who’s driving this?
  • How do we make sure we’re not here in another 12 months having the same conversation, yet again?

Tapping into these kinds of questions can create an important shift in the conversation. Accountability can feel like an “outside-in, future-back” question i.e. who and what will hold us accountable? But by digging beneath the surface, the conversation instead becomes one about ownership - which is much more of an “inside-out, present-moment” proposition.

One simple way to initiate an ownership conversation is by doing a ‘pre-mortem’ - something I wrote about in this LinkedIn post last year. By asking a team to anticipate and surface likely obstacles, and then solve for them, you’re asking the team to share ownership of progress.

So next time you hear the accountability question pop up, take a moment to make sure you’re tackling the real underlying questions that point to the more fundamental question: have we truly taken ownership yet? 

Until next time,

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