— 22 April 2004 —

Responsibility & Accountability

Recent events on this newfangled World Wide Web reminded me of something I meant to follow up on from one of my previous posts. Authority is only one part, or one category that is needed to create an environment that is conducive to producing quality products and services.


Responsibility does not mean ownership. Ownership implies ego, and when ego becomes involved people make decisions based on values that can be different than what the company values.

Unfortunately, most companies have an environment where no values have been established, communicated, and followed because there is no authority; no one is in charge (or more likely too many people are in charge). So as with an authority vacuum, a responsibility vacuum creates problems of its own.

Ownership then unfortunately becomes more important, and as such those who have created their own realms of authority take into it also their own brand of ownership, which helps them to protect the things they have built even when it is not in the best interests of the company.

Many large, decentralized companies tend to evolve (or devolve) into fiefdoms. This is a “Everything I need to know about corporate business I learned from studying feudal societies” issue. (Looks like I have the title of my next book/blog!) You can map most positions in the corporation to feudal positions within fiefdoms and kingdoms. Border clashes are constant. Each area blaming the other for “dropping the ball” or “not identifying the requirements, risks, etc.”

Everyone from the highest executive (the Queen or King), to the lowest analyst and support staff (serf, or let’s face it, slaves) needs to understand to what level they are responsible to meeting the needs of the organization. If you can create this, the next step is assigning accountability.


Accountability is a neutral term. Most think of it as a negative term, “You’ll be held accountable,” but accountability is essentially a level set on what is expected. If you don’t meet those expectations, chances are you will find accountability to be a negative term. But if you meet or exceed the expectations, accountability can help you identify to your management that you deserve a Scooby Snack™.

A truly open environment is the key. Giving all members of the team, company, or yes even vendors the option to fail is necessary, especially when each individual is asked to try. Setting expectations for everyone is important as it sets levels of accountability as well as levels of tolerance for deviation from the expectations set forth by those with authority.

In practice, I do not see how you can create an environment that supports (lives) quality. There are, of course, other factors: quality assurance and control, risk identification, issue management, project management… But these are really only vehicles, processes and tools.

Authority, responsibility, and accountability are environmental factors that are the ether in which it would be nice to work every day. Knowing what the company truly values (so you can take part in value-based decision making) and having people in true authority walking and talking those values, taking responsibility for your work and communicating that responsibility, and being held and holding oneself accountable to do the best job given the constraints of the particular reality are important factors that will help you focus on what matters: customer service, making money for the company, and feeling like you are a valued member of the organization.

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