20th February 2014

Accountability and Responsibility by Ian Kinnery

Words don’t have meanings, they have uses. That is one of the things about the English language which makes it so rich, so potent, so evocative, but there are times and contexts when the versatility of our language gets in the way of clear communication rather than smoothing the way, and the fact that we tend to use the two words accountability and responsibility interchangeably only serves to confuse rather than clarify.

So for once I am going to very specific about the meanings of the two words to enhance clarity and understanding in the business context.

Responsibility is something that can be shared, something that can pertain to many and very often is. For instance all team members are responsible for looking after the customer, for keeping the place clean and tidy, for their behaviour individually and collectively, for adhering to the core values of the organisation and for promoting your goods and services.

Accountability though is very different in that it is singular and can only be singular. Only one person can be accountable for something: either one person is, or no-one is. Two people cannot be accountable; only one. If two people are made accountable the reality is that no one is.

The reason I am so pedantic around this concept is that so often it is the lack of clarity in this area that results in confusion and less than optimum performance. Recently a client was bemoaning her team’s performance in a particular aspect of the company”s business. My first question was “tell me what is the process for (X)..?” The business owner then proceeded to tell me exactly what the process was. That was brilliant, they had a process for this particular aspect of their business and I have no doubt from the precision of the response that the process was documented so that everyone else could know the process too.

My second question “Who is responsible for carrying out this process?” was met with an equally clear response. “We are all responsible for following this process”. So far so good.

My third question, “Tell me who is accountable for this process?” was met by silence. You see we had created a classic situation. We had a process, well thought through and documented; we understood that everyone had a responsibility to adhere to this process but no one owned the process. No one was accountable for making sure that everyone knew what it was, that everyone was behaving in that way and that those who were failing to follow the process were spotted and corrected quickly and early, before it became a major problem. As a consequence the integrity of the process was so compromised that all of the work in creating the process had been wasted.

It is the business owners who are always ultimately accountable for all aspects of a business, but by making sure that the accountability for all the major processes in our business are properly delegated business owners can not only lighten their load but make sure that their business is functioning in a consistent and automatic way.

As a quick checklist
• What are the major processes that ensure the smooth running of your business?
• Are they documented in some kind of a “how to” manual so that they can happen insistently, consistently and persistently, each time and every time, irrespective of the personnel within the business?
• Have you set measurable performance standards for each process?
• Is one person allocated clear accountability for making sure that the performance standards for each process are always achieved?

Accountability and responsibility are two very different things.

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